DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Brad Keselowski compares racing in the Daytona 500 with attending your first day of school and taking a final exam.
On the same day.
“The biggest race is also the first race of the season,” the 2012 Cup champion said during Daytona 500 Media Day. “With it comes all the pressure and opportunity that comes with that to really set the stage for your season but also all the new faces and first-day jitters you have to work out with your team.
“There also is a lot of unpredictability and a lot of things that can go wrong. You make one mistake in this race, especially in those late stages and you find yourself out of it.”
That happened to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2015 when he made a mistake on a restart with 20 laps to go that essentially cost him a shot at back-to-back victories in the Great American Race.
Joey Logano took advantage, executing a series of perfect maneuvers in his No. 22 Ford over the final 20 laps and holding off a squadron of challengers without teammate Keselowski (whose engine expired earlier).
“It’s exhausting because there’s a lot going on,” Logano said. “If you’re trying to race up front the whole time, it’s an exhausting race. If you’re running around in the back, which I don’t think anyone is going to do now with the new format, but there’s a lot going through your mind.
“You have to try to see what’s going on a lap ahead all the time, and that’s really hard to put all of that together because to be able to do that you have to have great information from behind and what your spotter sees, and you have to have that communication really well, and then you have to see runs forming, and you have to know who you’re racing against and what type of moves they’re prone to making. You have to process all of that information before you make that split-second move when that opportunity comes up to make that big pass.”
Jimmie Johnson said it doesn’t always come down to just one mistake and added that a rules tweak (a smaller restrictor plate) will have an impact this year.
“It’s much more difficult to pass for the lead, so the pit stop or two prior to the end of the race and how you come off of pit road and how you line up on the ensuing restarts has more to do with it,” he said. “So we might be able to now kind of find a moment in time like, ‘Man, messed up on pit road, I got a bad restart.’ So it’s starting to develop now, and spending time watching last year’s 500, once you get the lead, it’s hard to lose it. It has to be the perfect storm behind you to create the opportunity to pass.”
Keselowski, who crashed Sunday with defending Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin while batting for the lead on the last lap of The Clash, believes the chips are ready to fall his way.
“A lot of things that you can’t control with respect to getting your car back up front, a lot of things you can’t control with getting cars to work with you at the right time,” he said. “There’s a lot of timing involved in these races. I feel like in some ways plate racing is almost like playing cards. You stack the odds and know you haven’t gotten a card in a long time. We haven’t caught any breaks at Daytona as a team in a long time.
“I know we have the car that can win this race this year. We have the speed. I feel I have the knowledge and intuition of the right moves to make. The last few years, we haven’t caught any breaks. And that pendulum is going to swing and we’re going to catch some good breaks. I believe that in my heart, and I believe this is the year to do it.”