Kez gets 1st win, Floyd Mayweather team makes Daytona 500

Jenna Fryer
Associated Press

Daytona Beach, Fla. — Brad Keselowski drove his new team to victory lane Thursday night in a Daytona 500 qualifying race.

It was the first win for Keselowski as part-owner of Jack Roush's organization. The team has been rebranded Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing, and Keselowski now drives its flagship No. 6 Ford.

Brad Keselowski celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the first of two NASCAR Daytona 500 qualifying auto races at Daytona International Speedway, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in Daytona Beach, Fla.

He has a long-term vision for RFK and returning the team to one of NASCAR's elite is not an overnight fix. But the win in the first of two 150-mile qualifying races means Keselowski has a fast Daytona 500 car.

Keselowski is 0 for 12 in “The Great American Race” and was involved in a fiery last-lap crash while racing for the win last year. He threw his helmet in disgust at his car that night, furious he didn't deliver the win he'd promised his dying father. Bob Keselowski lost his battle with cancer last December and Keselowski won Thursday night with a decal on his new No. 6 that honors his father.

“This is special,” he said.

Keselowski will start on the second row in Sunday's season-opening race. NASCAR champion Kyle Larson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman locked down the front row in Wednesday night time trials.

Floyd Mayweather Jr. will make his NASCAR debut on Sunday when The Money Team Racing starts the Daytona 500. Kaz Grala drove the No. 50 Chevrolet into the race with a pass of J.J. Yeley on the 60th and final lap.

Six teams came to Daytona battling for four “open” spots in Sunday's 40-car field. Two spots were filled in time trials — former Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve will make his Daytona 500 debut, as will Noah Gragson for Beard Motorsports — and one spot was available in each of the two qualifying races.

Grala had to be the highest finisher among the “open” teams and got Mayweather into the Daytona 500 with an 18th-place finish. Mayweather was not at the race — Grala said “the word on the street” was that the retired boxer would be at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday — but the team facetimed with the boss from the starting grid.

“He was so pumped up about it. He was ready, jacked up and really confident in us,” Grala said. “That was a cool pep talk to get, not one that I’ve ever gotten before. Definitely a cool moment for us and having that validation that he’s excited about this program."

The 500 has been sold out for about a month with an expected crowd Sunday of more than 120,000 that Grala predicted would woo Mayweather. The Money Team plans just a partial schedule this season.

“He’s really going to get obsessed with this,” said Grala, “Just like we all are.”

It was the first win for a Roush car since Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 2017 at this track. Roush had won a Daytona qualifier only once before, in 2012 when Matt Kenseth won both the short race and then the 500. Keselowski, who won the 2012 championship for Roger Penske and has long been a cog in the Ford plans of attack at superspeedways, said the Blue Oval group will be strong on Sunday.

“I’ve got to give credit to the other Fords,” he said. “We worked really well together.”

Keselowski worked with former Penske teammate Ryan Blaney and Austin Cindric, his replacement in the No. 2 Ford, as well as Chase Briscoe of Stewart-Haas Racing.

“We had great strategy. We stuck together and drove away and got ourselves in position where we could control the finish of this race,” Keselowski said. “I’m happy to see all those Fords up front.”

Cindric, Blaney and Briscoe finished second, third and fourth, locking out Chase Elliott of Hendrick.

Larson led a race-high 34 laps from the pole, but finished seventh. He will lead the field to green Sunday in the debut of NASCAR's new Next Gen car.

"In the moment I just want to win, don't have time to be sentimental," said Keselowski, who said the victory showed RFK has high expectations for the driver-led organization.

The racing Thursday night was extremely conservative because of a slow rollout of the Next Gen, which had already missed its initial deadline by a year because of the pandemic. Teams are in need of actual race cars — everything is purchased now, teams aren't building their own stuff anymore — and not many have backup cars in Daytona. It meant everyone had to race fairly safe to save their car for the 500.