Veteran Cup champs fall short again of first Daytona 500 win

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Brad Keselowski was so close.

So close to earning the win that would make his otherwise superlative resume bulletproof.

So close to making the ultimate statement after joining Roush Fenway Racing – make that Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing – and achieving his ambition of team ownership.

But as he knows all too well, close doesn’t count at the Daytona 500.

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As the final lap of overtime unfolded Sunday, Keselowski was among the contenders, leading the top line of cars.

But even with a push from behind by Chase Briscoe, Keselowski couldn’t quite pull up alongside leader Austin Cindric – the rookie in the No. 2 Team Penske ride he used to drive.

Then, entering Turn 3, Briscoe slipped off the bumper of Keselowski’s No. 6 RFK Racing Ford. Keselowski, robbed of the energy he needed, could only play defense from there.

It didn’t go well. He shuffled backwards in the middle lane, crossed the line ninth, and was promptly involved in a crash – while Cindric held off Ryan Blaney and then Bubba Wallace to win in his second Daytona 500 start.

Keselowski, the 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion, has 35 career victories. But he’s now 0-for-13 in the race that matters most.

“I thought down the backstretch, we were gonna win the race and just (Blaney) and (Cindric) got a really good push from (Wallace) and basically cleared our lane and then our lane kind of broke up there at the end,” Keselowski said.

“It was really close, just green-white-checkers.”

So ended a dramatic day that also saw Keselowski involved in two other crashes.

On Lap 63, Keselowski’s push of Harrison Burton went awry and set off a multi-car incident that had Burton briefly turned upside down on the backstretch. Later, off the restart at Lap 195, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spun off the nose of Keselowski’s car and hit the wall in the tri-oval.

Keselowski expressed remorse over both incidents. When asked if he had been overly aggressive, he noted: “Whenever somebody spins out, obviously, there’s somebody over aggressive, but in the moment, I didn’t.”

He wasn’t the only veteran Cup champion to fall short Sunday despite best efforts.

Kyle Busch finished sixth, leaving him winless in 17 Daytona 500 starts. His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Martin Truex Jr., finished 13th, which leaves him winless in 18 Daytona 500 starts.

Truex won both stages Sunday, continuing a theme this weekend at Daytona. In all three NASCAR national series races, a single driver swept the stages.

In Friday’s Truck Series race, it was John Hunter Nemechek. But he was swept up in a massive crash at the white flag and finished 24th.

In Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, it was Daniel Hemric. But he took damage in a restart crash and was relegated to a 28th-place finish.

Truex also had some bad luck Sunday.

On Lap 151, Tyler Reddick lost control of Turn 4 to set off a five-car crash. Truex escaped it, but was not unscathed, taking right-front damage to his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

The 2017 Cup champion was a non-factor for the remainder of the race, but he at least secured a healthy points haul with his stage wins. He goes to next week’s race at Auto Club Speedway third in the regular season standings behind Cindric and Keselowski.

As for Busch, he and his No. 18 team had to rally after their Toyota took damage in the aforementioned Stage 1 wreck.

But while he didn’t end up in Victory Lane, Busch said he was still “pleased” with salvaging a sixth-place finish despite a heavily taped up race car.

“(The damage) definitely slowed us down a little bit,” he added. “Any time you get damage, it’s not optimum, but otherwise we were able to hang in the draft well and race around some of the other guys that were fast.

“But there were definitely guys that were faster than us and they were noticeable.”