DAYTONA BEACH, Fla – There may be fireworks on the beach at Daytona on Thursday night for the Fourth of July, but a few hours earlier on the high banks of the Daytona International Speedway, we had an early fireworks show.
See, Brad Keselowski is 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.”
The No. 24 team will go to a backup car for Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7:30 p.m. ET; NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).