DAYTONA BEACH — In this case, the misery is the compliment. The shortcoming is the final clue.
The fact that everyone wants to remind Brad Keselowski that he has never won the Daytona 500 is the best indication of a career worth celebrating.
You do not chide a journeyman, and you do not tweak a nobody. It is only the best of the best who must endure the annual reminders of one’s shortcomings in the Great American Race.
You know, they’ll say, Tony Stewart is one of a handful of drivers to win at least three series championships. (But he never won the Daytona 500.) Rusty Wallace was in the top 10 of the all-time victories list when he retired in 2005. (And yet, never won the Daytona 500.) Mark Martin, Ned Jarrett and Terry LaBonte are all Hall of Famers. (And not a single Daytona 500 victory lap between them.)
So there is a warped bit of pride in Keselowski’s disappointments. There is a small sense of defiance in his yearly torment. And, make no mistake, it is torment.
“Heartbreak,” Keselowski wrote on Twitter following his last-lap crash while trying to take the lead at the Daytona 500. “My body is fine but my heart is broke.”
The last one was clearly the most painful for Keselowski, who turned 38 last week. It was his 12th shot at the Daytona 500 and his best chance at victory. He was right on the bumper of leader Joey Logano on the final lap when Michael McDowell gave Keselowski a push from behind.
Whether Logano blocked him late or Keselowski was too aggressive going after his Penske teammate is open for debate. The result, however, was not. Keselowski’s move triggered a massive crash that knocked both drivers out of the race and allowed McDowell to sail to victory under a caution flag.
Keselowski climbed out, took a few steps away from his car while removing his helmet, and then turned around and hurled the helmet at the side of his battered, smoking vehicle.
A year later, Keselowski was more philosophical about his Daytona 500 quest. His anger and disappointment in 2021, he said, was a reflection of his desire to win the race for his father. Bob Keselowski passed away late last year at age 70 after a two-year battle with cancer.
“That’s part of what stung so bad, losing it the way I did last year,” Keselowski said this week. “I wanted to win it for him.”
The irony is that, between the summer race in Daytona and Talladega, Keselowski has seven career victories on NASCAR’s super speedways. It is only the 500 that has eluded him, and often in frustrating fashion. He finished third and fourth in consecutive years earlier in his career, but has since crashed in four of the last five Daytona 500s.
“I have probably won some races at Talladega I didn’t deserve to win, and probably lost some here I deserved to win,” Keselowski said. “I imagine it evens itself out somehow — it just hasn’t evened itself out in the way I would like it here.
“I feel like we were really close last year and trying to make the pass for the lead on the last lap and the last corner. It doesn’t get much closer than that. If I can just keep the thing with four wheels on the ground pointed the right way for a whole race, I think I can have a pretty good shot at it.”
It will be a different perspective for Keselowski this time at Daytona. After a long run with Penske, he became a part-owner at Roush Fenway Racing and will start Sunday’s race in the No. 6 car.
He’s come a long way from his first brush with fame at Daytona in 2012, when he famously began tweeting pictures and answering questions from fans while inside his car during a race delay following a fiery crash. At the time, he was 28 and had four career victories and a couples of poles on his resume.
Keselowski has now won races in 11 consecutive seasons, is in the top 25 on the all-time list with 35 victories and has finished in the top 10 of the season series nine times, including the 2012 championship.
So will that career be incomplete without a Daytona 500 victory?
It’s too early for Keselowski to even entertain that notion. He said he once heard that a racer doesn’t just win the Indianapolis 500, rather the Indianapolis 500 chooses who gets to win the race.
Maybe that’s true of the Daytona 500, too. And maybe the race just hasn’t yet extended that invitation to Brad Keselowski.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.