DAYTONA BEACH, Fla – Brad Keselowski had enough. Last year’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 was his tipping point. Thursday’s move that Keselowski made on William Byron in final practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series was a direct action of an incident that these two had during last year’s race at the Daytona International Speedway.
The Fourth of July came a bit early in Daytona.
See, another factor in this is Keselowski being among the top superspeedway racers in the game today. That’s a start to why we saw a potential melee break out in final practice on Thursday afternoon. Out of his 30 career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victories, six have come at either Talladega or Daytona.
In 2016, Keselowski led 115 laps en route to a win in the Coke Zero Sugar 400. That’s still his lone points paying Daytona win in NASCAR’s premiere series. But, it’s not like he hasn’t had the speed to win more at the World Center of Racing, it’s just that he’s been involved in more crashes than not.
Four of his last five starts on the famed 2.5-mile Florida oval have resulted in an accident. Since his victory three years ago, Keselowski’s finishes at Daytona are – 27th, 31st, 32nd, 36th and 12th respectively. If you go back to the July race in 2014, eight of his last 10 starts have seen the Team Penske driver finish 18th or worse. He has one top 10 result in that time frame and that was that win in 2016.
Last year, Keselowski was running up front but was collected in a big crash early on in the race when he tried to avoid a blocking William Byron. That sparked a melee in Turn 3.
In final practice on Thursday, the two came together again, this time it was Keselowski backing up his words at Daytona after his crash a year ago.
With about 15 minutes to go in final practice, Keselowski got into the left rear quarter panel of Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet in Turn 3 which sent Byron’s car out of control. Luckily, Byron was able to keep control of his car enough to not come back up the banking and take several other drivers out. But, it was a move that look intentional on Keselowski’s behalf.
Why make a move like he did in practice? Well, go back to last year, remember?
Byron was leading last year’s race but switching lanes from top to bottom. He moved low to block Keselowski, an incident that ended with the No. 2 Ford spinning high and smashing the wall.
“I need to wreck more people so they’ll stop throwing bad blocks,” Keselowski said that night.
On Thursday, Keselowski blamed Byron for putting him in that exact same position again, this time, Keselowski didn’t back down.
“Just had a big run,” Keselowski told NBCSN when he brought his car back to the garage. “He put me in a position where I had to lift, and I keep telling these guys I’m not lifting. Just trying to send a message. I’m not lifting.
“I’m tired of getting wrecked at these (superspeedway) tracks,” he added. “They’re all watching. They know. I’ve been put in positions these last few plate races – not just by William (Byron) but a handful of other people too where I’ve had to make a decision to risk myself on being loaded up on the trailer and watching the end of the race or drive through the guy in front of me. I’ve been too conservative and ended up watching too many of these plate races from the back of the trailer and that is not the responsible thing to do for my team. I’m not going to do that anymore. I’ve made that commitment. If you’re going to make that commitment, then you make that commitment today and make that commitment in the race as well.”
That sets a bad precedent for Saturday night’s race though. I mean, it’s Daytona, you’re going to have to lift at times. These cars with this package that we run allows for bigger drafts from behind. Without much real estate to go at some times, you have to be able to control the throttle so you’re not running over the car in front, like Keselowski did today.
Granted, you can’t slam on the brakes either because of cars behind running into you, which is what happened in last year’s race and what Keselowski is referring to, but you have to be smart and choose how to maneuver the pack and not cause an melee. If guys aren’t going to lift, then expect there to be plenty of fireworks on Saturday night.
“It’s practice,” Byron said after climbing from his car on Thursday. “I don’t think that was really necessary to turn us there. … I didn’t really expect that, but that’s all right. It wasn’t like I changed four lanes down the backstretch and blocked him. I was just kind of holding my lane, and he just used his run to drive into my left rear.”
On Friday, Byron said that he did reach out to Keselowski on Thursday night to see why Keselowski did what he did. While Byron didn’t divulge much from their conversation, he did say Keselowski apologized for the damage on his No. 24 Chevrolet which sent them to a backup car.
“It would have been more professional to just come talk to me about what was wrong instead of taring up a race car and make my guys have to bring out the backup and have to work all the way through the night,” said Byron on Friday. “I don’t think that’s the way to handle it. That’s the kind of unnecessary part for me that I don’t appreciate.
“I wanted to talk to him because I felt like he probably didn’t expect me to talk to him and I need to talk to him about things like that. I need to hear where he’s coming from so I don’t draw my own conclusion, which probably isn’t going to be a good one. Guys don’t talk enough to people nowadays and we need to handle a thing like that more often.”
While Keselowski said that he was sending a message, what do the other drivers think? Was the message received?
“I’ve never seen Brad (Keselowski) lift behind me anyways so I don’t anticipate if it’s an 18 car, he’s going to do anything any different,” said one of Keselowski’s biggest rivals in the garage Kyle Busch. “You have to be careful with who you’re racing, who you’re doing this with and what’s going on. Tony (Stewart) always kind of said that too years ago. I threw a big block on him in 2008 and about ended up on my lid. So, shit happens.”
Byron’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson stuck up for his teammate and didn’t think a message on his end was received.
“I don’t think he sent a message to anyone,” said the seven-time Cup Series champion.
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Daniel Suarez didn’t think a message was warranted in that time of practice and that he thinks blocking is part of the game at Daytona now.
“Probably a little early in practice but I don’t feel like that is a reason to send any messages,” said Suarez. That’s part of this racing now and everyone has been very aggressive with the blocking. That’s normal. Everyone does it.”
The only one that did say that Keselowski’s message was received was his teammate Joey Logano.
“I guess he sent the message,” said Saturday night’s pole sitter. “That’s what he said afterwards, I guess, on TV and I’d say message delivered to the field. He had the opportunity to send a message and he did.”
But, it appears that a message though wasn’t taken much further than his own organization.