Rochester Hills' Brad Keselowski sees Daytona 500 as return shot at glory

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Things haven’t gone the way Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski would have liked so far this month at Daytona Motor Speedway, but things could change when he takes the track in his No. 2 Ford Mustang for team owner Roger Penske Sunday in the Daytona 500.

Keselowski, the 2012 NASCAR Cup champion, finished middle of the pack (23rd, 191.270 mph) in last weekend’s qualifying or nearly three mph slower than pole-sitter Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (194.582) who was let go by Roush/Fenway Racing at the end of last season and is now competing for JTG Daugherty Racing — co-owned by former NBA star Brad Daugherty — in the No. 47 Chevrolet Camaro.

Brad Keselowski

Then, the 36-year-old Keselowski showed his anger with his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano, accusing Logano of unnecessary blocking that led to a wreck that bounced Keselowski and several other drivers from the race with nine laps remaining in last Sunday’s Busch Clash won by Michigan native Erik Jones.

“We shouldn’t be wrecking all these cars,” Keselowski said following the race to a pool of reporters. “You’d think these guys would be smarter than that. It’s the same thing over and over, somebody throws a stupid block that’s never going to work and wrecks half the field.”

While Logano took the lead on the final lap to win the first Bluegreen Vacations Duel 150-mile race — which helps sets the field for the Daytona 500 — on Thursday night to place him on Row 2 for Sunday’s race, Keselowski finished fourth and will start in Row 5 alongside Kevin Harvick.

Yes, emotions run high at Daytona and Keselowski would love nothing more than to win his first Daytona 500. This will be his 11th start in the Super Bowl of NASCAR racing with his best finish of third in 2014. He won the summer race at Daytona back in 2016.

A lot has changed for Keselowski since the end of last season when he won three races but was eliminated in the Round of 12 of the playoffs for the second straight season, finishing eighth in points.

“I didn’t get into any trouble which was good. (I) had a new baby, a little girl which is No. 2 and now I just have to go and win Daytona,” Keselowski said in a phone interview before heading to Daytona from his North Carolina home.

Keselowski’s wife Paige gave birth to the couple's second child, Autumn, in December and he also has a new crew chief in Jeremy Bullins with his former longtime crew chief Paul Wolfe moving on to Logano’s team.

Brad Keselowski, right, and Paige Keselowski celebrated the birth of their second child, Autumn, in December.

Keselowski and Bullins worked together in the NASCAR Xfinity Series where they won 14 races, six in 2013.

This is Keselowski’s 10th season with Team Penske where he has won 29 races and is hoping to return to winning NASCAR championships.

“It’s been a heck of a ride and hopefully much more to go if you know what I mean,” said Keselowski of his relationship with Roger Penske. “Roger has been very good to me and I’d like to think I’ve been good to him. It’s been a heck of a journey and we still have some things we have to do together, and the Daytona 500 is one of them.

“I wonder how many more mountains there are left to climb, but we keep finding them, and the next one is that Daytona 500. So, it will be interesting to see if we can pull it off. Ten years is definitely a good reflection point.”

Keselowski earned Penske his first NASCAR championship back in 2012. Logano gave Penske his second title back in 2018, along with a Daytona 500 win in 2015.

No doubt, the Daytona 500 is a tough race to win. Dale Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500 in his 20th start back in 1998 before his tragic death in the same race three years later.

So, why is it so tough to win the Daytona 500?

“It seems like there’s inevitably a lot of wrecks, a lot of wrecks and lately it’s been just surviving the wrecks and we haven’t been able to do that, so I’d say it starts there,” Keselowski said. “And, then, of course, you need to have the speed, and you need to make the right moves, but you can do all the right things, have really fast cars, which I feel we’ve done the last three or four years, and it doesn’t matter, you get caught up in somebody else’s wreck, so that’s frustrating.

"There’s only so much you can control, so first start by controlling your own destiny and doing everything right and then hoping the track smiles at you.”

Keselowski knows he has to be at the top of his game to compete with Joe Gibbs Racing drivers — defending series champion Kyle Busch, 2017 champion Martin Truex Jr., defending Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and Jones — for the championship. JGR drivers combined to win 19 of the series’ 36 races last season.

“We’ve ran good, but we’ve been good — not great — and we’ve been good enough to win three to five races in each season the last five or six years, but that’s not enough to win the championship,” Keselowski said. “You have to be in that five to eight wins to win another championship. We’ve been close, and I’m not complaining, but we’re trying to go from good to great and I know Mr. Penske wants to be great and we want to be there with him, so we’ll keep pushing.

“I feel like I have so much more that I want to do. I’m still at the age where I have enough youth to be a prime force in the sport. You just want to live up to your potential and go to work every day at that. That’s something you can never take for granted and I try really hard not to. It takes a lot of focus to be in this spot and make the most of it. There’s pressure that comes with it, but the pressure is part of the opportunity.”

There will be a lot of new faces in the Daytona 500 with rookies Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer making their first starts.

Seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson will be making his final tour this season for Hendrick Motorsports which has a young trio of William Byron — who won Duel 2 Thursday night — Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott.

Brad Keselowski has been with Team Penske for 10 years.

“Jimmie brought a new standard to the sport, there’s no doubt about that,” said Keselowski of Johnson, who won five straight championships from 2006-10 and then again in 2013 and ’16. “I’m really proud to say that I competed against him, of course, I will say that beating him met a lot to me because his race team was the strongest. I think Jimmie is one of those guys who had his own way of doing things, no different than me, but the things that he has done worked really, really well for him and pushed all of us to be the best we could be.

“I struggle sometimes to really explain his legacy to be honest, how he won five championships in a row, and if we’ll ever see that again and what that means for our sport. But, I also think sometimes why he does not get as much credit that you would think would come with that and I don’t really know. He has what is going to be a really complicated legacy based on the era he competed in.”

When asked to comment on Jones who is on a powerhouse team, Keselowski replied: “It’s tough when you’re on a four-car team and you have three high-caliber drivers around you who are always going to overshadow you, it’s almost impossible.

“You’re not even the third wheel, you’re the fourth wheel, and so I think with respect to that it’s hard to kind of carve your way out so I kind of empathize for him, thinking how tough that must be to kind of sneak your head out and push for the things that you need to be the best when you’re up against those other three guys, quite the force to push against.

“I think he’s done quite well, won a couple of races, he’s helped take that team to Victory Lane and made sure that all four cars have won races. I know if I was his car owner (Joe Gibbs) I’d be proud of that.”

Daytona 500

When: Sunday, 2:30 p.m., Daytona International Speedway

TV: Fox

Pole: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

2019 winner: Denny Hamlin