Keselowski is ready to get back up on that horse

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 11: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, takes the checkered flag to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway on February 11, 2018 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Brad Keselowski likens his current state of mind to the times when he was younger anticipating that first day of school. Only now, it’s more of a graduate education, as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series prepares to open its 2019 season at Daytona International Speedway this weekend.

“It’s certainly the race I would think of myself being the most prepared for just by the nature of it being the first race of the season,” Keselowski, 34, said. “It reminds me a little bit like when I was in school, the first day of school.

“The night before I would kind of lay out all my clothes, have my backpack packed with pencils, notebooks whatever it might be.

“Of course you get a little bit later into the school year, you’re getting dressed the morning of, you’re barely finding your clothes, your backpack is a mess, all the kind of stuff.

“That’s probably the best way I know how to explain the Daytona 500, it has a lot of that first-day-of-school feel, everybody is super prepared, sometimes a little too anxious as well.

The 2012 Monster Energy Series champion and a consensual superstar on the sport’s big restrictor plate tracks like Daytona, Keselowski is still missing that one most sought-after trophy in the Great American Race. He shows up in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford Mustang this week as the defending winner of Sunday afternoon’s Advance Auto Parts Clash (3 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), non-points race with his sights set high – as always.

His sights are set on victory in the Feb. 17 Daytona 500 (at 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

“It’s something I thought a lot about,” Keselowski told reporters Thursday. “Before last season I had never really won a major NASCAR race. I won the championship (2012), done a lot of those things, which is certainly great. I hadn’t won a major. Last year after winning Darlington and Indianapolis, gosh, the thrill from that, I’m still kind of on a high from that. That was almost six months ago.

“But Daytona is, the 500, one major I don’t have. I feel like it’s a race we’ve been competitive at. We had opportunities to win it. For a number of reasons, it hasn’t come together, which is sometimes unsettling. People ask me all the time, ‘what race is the one that got away?’ It’s the 500, so far. I want to change that.”

Keselowski’s work on restrictor plates makes him a favorite from the time he shows up in Daytona Beach. He won his first ever Cup race on the Talladega high banks in 2009 and has six of his 26 career wins at the Talladega and Daytona superspeedways.

The route to victory and the disappointment of defeat however, is always unpredictable. And at Daytona, especially in the Daytona 500, it’s exaggerated and an intense sense of desire and emotion. Sometimes the best car, the keenest strategy, the star performer doesn’t win. That has been the case for Keselowski more times than he’d like to think about. He’s won on restrictor plate tracks leading a lot and he’s won leading a little.

For example, Keselowski led a dominating 115 of the 161 laps in his lone Daytona win in July of 2016. Yet in four of his five Talladega triumphs, Keselowski led 12 laps or fewer. Last year Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500 leading only the final lap to the checkered flag.

In all, Keselowski has led only 38 laps total in nine Daytona 500s and his best finish was a third-place in 2014. Since then he’s only finished three of the last four races and has finishes of 20th or worse in all four of those.

Last year Keselowski won the Advance Auto Parts Clash 75-lap exhibition race and has finished an impressive ninth or better in five of the six Clash races he’s run. Yet his only top-five in the Duel at DAYTONA qualifying race was a fourth place in 2017.

It’s the kind of hit and miss that characterizes restrictor plate tracks, but for a driver so skilled and accomplished on them, the mixed bag is hard to reconcile.

As he’s proven over his nine-year Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career, however, that only motivates Keselowski more. He’s a champion and he’s always a favorite at Daytona.

“I feel like the Daytona 500 is one of those races, a lot of restrictor plate races are this way, in my mind, one of those races where one year it takes smarts and great execution and one year it takes a lot of luck,” Keselowski explained. “It seems to rotate back and forth.

“I went back and watched a lot of film. Joey Logano (2015) won the race two or three years ago and the same thing with Denny Hamlin (2016), they made smart and courageous moves to win the race. They really really earned it.

“Then I’ve seen other races – not to pick on anybody – where I would say that’s not the case. Someone was lucky enough to be running at the end of the day. The 500 kind of fell into their laps. That can be really frustrating when you feel like you’ve done everything right, the luck side is not in your favor.

“You got to get back up on the horse and ride. I feel like a number of opportunities we’ve had to win fell through our hands and there’s nothing we could have done differently. We go back there, we keep our hope, we do all the right things and control all the things we can control, knowing that will give us our best chance of winning.”

Greg Engle