One year ago, Brad Keselowski’s frustration was visible.
As the final laps of the Daytona 500 ticked away, Keselowski made a bold move to set himself up for a last-lap pass for the lead on his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano. But when Logano blocked Keselowski’s path forward, Keselowski got hit from behind by Michael McDowell, triggering a frightening crash that knocked out both Penske cars. McDowell went on to win the race, leaving Keselowski without a Harley J. Earl Trophy for at least one more year.
By the time Keselowski returned to Daytona International Speedway for this year’s Great American Race, much had changed for him.
No longer driving for Penske, Keselowski bought an ownership stake in Roush-Fenway Racing, and the team was rechristened as RFK Racing. To fill the vacancy in the No. 2 car, Penske called up Austin Cindric, the 2020 Xfinity Series champion who missed out on winning last year’s title by .03 seconds in the season’s final race.
Both drivers are facing some serious challenges going into 2022. Cindric inherits a car that can compete for race wins each week but lacks experience in NASCAR’s Cup Series, where rookies have largely struggled in the last few seasons. Keselowski will face all the burdens and stressors associated with team ownership as he tries to help turn around Roush’s team, an organization that has been slowly declining for around 10 years.
Yet for one weekend in Daytona, the Cup Series newbie and the veteran he replaced crossed paths on several occasions, finding themselves fighting for wins amongst a few other Ford teammates. Keselowski came out on top during the first of Thursday night’s (Feb. 17) Duel races, defeating Cindric, Ryan Blaney and Chase Briscoe.
On Sunday (Feb. 20), after nearly four hours of tough competition, all four drivers had a chance to win the Daytona 500. During a two-lap overtime restart to decide the race, Cindric prevailed with some help from Blaney and a frantic block coming to the finish line. Penske’s No. 2 team was finally a winner in the Daytona 500. But Keselowski was no longer the man in the driver’s seat.
If you would have had to pick a winner in a Keselowski/Cindric/Blaney/Briscoe rematch, the smart money likely would have been on Keselowski, especially after the duel. With four laps to go in that qualifying race, a push from Briscoe allowed Keselowski to take the lead from Blaney. The veteran then took the kids to school for the rest of the event. Blaney and Cindric were unable to hook up on the last lap, allowing Keselowski to drive away to the win. Chris Buescher’s victory in the second duel completed a sweep of the Daytona qualifying races for RFK.
It felt like Keselowski had all the momentum in the world heading into Sunday’s race. Although Roush’s cars have remained strong at superspeedways, it takes a driver who understands the draft to make the most of a fast car at Daytona. Keselowski clearly had not lost his touch, given his performance on Thursday night. Even with a new team and new responsibilities, this felt like the year when Keselowski would finally capture the Daytona 500 crown. Yet once again, Keselowski was denied in Daytona.
It certainly was not for a lack of effort on Keselowski’s part. His No. 6 was a frequent sight near the front of the pack all day long. As is typical for the last several years at Daytona, the Fords were fastest in the draft and were able to control much of the race. Keselowski led 67 laps, Cindric led 21, and other Ford drivers led an additional 40. It was not a surprise to see the Blue Oval in victory lane for a second year in a row.
However, it was not a smooth race for either Cindric or Keselowski. Cindric spun Briscoe in turn two after Briscoe checked up to avoid the hobbled car of Kaz Grala, bringing out the race’s first caution on lap 41.
Keselowski was a factor in setting off two major incidents. The first was on lap 63 when an errant bump from Keselowski turned rookie Harrison Burton in front of the field on the backstretch. Burton’s car got airborne and rolled over into the path of several drivers, causing stage one to end under caution.
The second incident was with just six laps to go. Another push gone wrong from Keselowski turned Ricky Stenhouse Jr. into the outside wall at the exit of turn 4. It was almost unbelievable that Keselowski, Cindric, Blaney and Briscoe all reached the front of the pack again for the overtime restart.
One more Ford battle, along with the Toyotas of Bubba Wallace and Kyle Busch, would decide the Great American Race. Cindric, the leader, restarted in the outside lane but dropped low quickly to pick up Blaney. Keselowski, who had been directly behind Cindric, found himself leading the outside lane, pushed by Briscoe. The Cindric/Blaney duo was just a little more efficient than the Keselowski/Briscoe tandem, preventing Keselowski from pulling even with his old car.
Briscoe’s biggest run actually came from a push by Busch off of turn four on the final lap. Keselowski reacted too late and was unable to block Briscoe, effectively ending his shot at the victory. Cindric was more successful in holding back Blaney and Wallace down the final stretch, securing his first Cup Series victory in just his eighth start.
The win gives Cindric an instant shot of credibility. Once maligned for tearing up race cars in his early Xfinity days, Cindric found his way to victory lane in the Cup Series very quickly. Even better, he won the biggest race of them all, beating out Wallace, Blaney and Keselowski, the winners of the last three Cup Series superspeedway races. With the Harley J. Earl trophy in hand and a playoff berth likely secured, the future is brighter than ever for Cindric.
Meanwhile, the loss has to sting for Keselowski, who faded back to ninth place by the time he crossed the finish line. Not only did he come close to winning once again, but he also had to watch his former team celebrating a victory with a driver who was attempting the Daytona 500 for only the second time.
Keselowski’s transition to Cup Series owner/driver was a calculated gamble. His role in the future of RFK could pay off enormously, personally and professionally, sometime down the road. But for one night in Daytona, it would be hard to blame Keselowski for missing his pals at Team Penske. They avenged their Daytona 500 loss from last year. Keselowski, however, walks away empty handed once more.
About the author
Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past six years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southwest Florida.
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Did our friend Kaselowski, suddenly backing off to ninth, throw this race, to avoid being labeled a “bad boy victor”, by precious fans?
Nope, he didn’t react fast enough to stay ahead of the faster line. His line faded fast.