Keselowski, Yeley, Busch among winners at Daytona qualifiers
With help from brother Brad, Brian Keselowski earned a surprise spot in the 500
Kurt Busch has a chance to make history if he wins on Sunday
Roush Fenway Racing is struggling again as Sunday's race approaches
Sporting the widest smile of anyone at Speedweeks, Brian Keselowski emerged from an unsponsored, five-year-old No. 92 Dodge having qualified for his first Sprint Cup race. But this wasn't just any racing debut; Daytona's second qualifying Duel created the ultimate underdog story for a 29-year-old rookie whose life from this moment is forever altered. NASCAR's Super Bowl guaranteed a minimum $250,000 payout for a team that on Wednesday struggled to find $2.50 in their wallets to buy a sandwich, an owner/driver with no Cup superspeedway experience outclassing drivers like Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, and Greg Biffle to start 12th.
That achievement in itself would be plenty of reason to celebrate. But perhaps the biggest reward of all is one you can't quantify on the track, a squabbling sibling relationship off it whose road to repair may have started during those final few laps on Thursday. Their story leads off a list of winners and losers from the Daytona 150-mile qualifiers, setting the field for a Great American Race that may have suddenly rediscovered its roots when least expected.
WINNER: Brian Keselowski. Brian Keselowski was up for a ride in the Busch series in 2006 but failed to make a race in a lower division, which left him ineligible to move up. Scrambling for a replacement, Keith Coleman Racing decided to keep it in the family: brother Brad got a chance, passed with flying colors and landed the ride on a full-time basis in 2007.
Four years later, this sibling rivalry now stood at a crossroads. Brad's career skyrocketed, and he now drives the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge for powerhouse Penske Racing. Already a Cup winner at Talladega, he's secured a dozen Busch/Nationwide victories, a championship in 2010 and has nearly $13 million in career winnings. Brother Brian? He's broke, that missed opportunity leaving him on the owner/driver, blue-collar side of the fence where often times there's not enough money to do more than qualify, drive a few laps, and park his car to pay the bills.
"There's always a little bit of jealousy," said Brian on Thursday. "I feel like if roles could have been reversed, there's a possibility I could be in the same position he's in now. I would have liked the chance."
But there's a difference between jealousy and bitterness. Brian never had any of the latter, never changing his happy-go-lucky, good-natured attitude. It's a stark contrast from how Brad has developed, a good man but with a sarcastic wit and a strong sense of self-confidence that often rubs people the wrong way -- including his own family.
"How has Brad changed? He hasn't changed at all. He's always been a snotty little kid," said Keselowski to laughter in Daytona's media center. "He knows I love him ... it's just part of it."
But now, despite all the outward bravado, younger brother Brad may have finally shown his softer side, pulling the ultimate selfless act of literally pushing his brother into this year's Daytona 500. After a spin left Brad with bad track position, restarting back in the pack with 17 to go, he started looking for a drafting partner, looked over and saw a brother who just yesterday was 18 miles an hour slower than the field in practice. But with these two-car drafts, the car in back can work wonders, acting as a second motor to push an ailing one to the front in virtually any circumstance. What would younger brother do?
"I said, 'Heck, I've got a great guy to work with back here after the spin and at least I know that he's not going to dump me," explained Brad. "The next thing you know we're running fourth, fifth, and then second. [Brian and Brad wound up sixth and eighth, respectively]. It's a great feeling."
Brian's low-budget team now at least is guaranteed the cash to make it to Phoenix next week. And after that? He'll take it day by day, just like a newly-rebuilt friendship with the brother -- Brian even moved into Brad's town house on Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s property -- that didn't leave him behind this time.
"I'm not sure if we dreamed about it," said Brad of racing in the Daytona 500 together. "But I did dream about the day that we didn't beat each other up."
I think they're both past that now.
WINNER. J.J. Yeley. The Keselowski duo overshadowed Yeley's dramatic finish in Duel No. 1. With seven laps left, Yeley and his single-car team was a lap down and staring at a DNQ. After a two-car draft with Marcos Ambrose never pulled its weight, Yeley was watching the teammate tandem of Joe Nemechek and Kevin Conway pull away in front, sticking on the lead lap and all but ruining his chances to make the 500.
But in one split second, a shattering of parts and pieces changed everything. Michael McDowell's blown engine enabled Yeley to get his lap back. Pitting for fuel and four fresh tires, the No. 46 timed the restart perfectly, blew by the NEMCO Motorsports duo and held on to steal Conway's spot in the 500 from under their noses.
"It's been a long road back," said Yeley, who just 16 months ago suffered a serious neck injury at Lakeside Speedway, a dirt track disaster that once threatened to permanently derail his racing career. "In this sport, if you're not in clear view, you can easily get forgotten. That's what I started to feel like ... running well, I hope, is opening eyes and showing that I still have the ability."
Making this race will do a lot to keep those eyes on him.
WINNER. Kurt Busch. No driver has won the exhibition Bud Shootout, a Daytona qualifying race and the 500 all in the same year. But after a second straight sterling performance, Busch will have his chance at history Sunday after timing a push to the front perfectly in Duel No. 1. During a green-white-checkered finish, Busch's Dodge started third behind Kasey Kahne but used a partnership from an unlikely source -- the Chevy of Regan Smith -- to hook up and drive past the No. 4. It all looked so easy on television, although the 2004 Cup Series champ says don't be fooled; with this rules package, even the veteran drivers are learning as they go.
"I feel like I don't know anything about the draft," he said. "You have to react in thousandths of a second, split-second decisions. You have to have a good drafting partner [who will stick with you]."
"It's almost like you're playing Texas Hold 'Em, you see everybody get their deck of cards and you're looking around to see who is betting with who, who is going to hang around and wait to see the flop."
It's a humble statement from a future Hall of Famer who's often classically underestimated. Before Saturday, the odds were against Busch making any kind of noise at Daytona; after all, he hadn't won a single restrictor plate race in 10 years. But now, he stands alongside Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. as the drivers with the best chance to win this year's 500.
WINNER. Regan Smith. The man who started Earnhardt's Saturday wreck earned some redemption in Duel No. 1. Coming to the checkers in second, Smith was in a position similar to a 2008 race in Talladega. He passed Tony Stewart for the win, but was penalized for dipping below the yellow line. Thursday, he decided not to risk it and accepted second place.
"Once I saw I didn't have the opportunity, I figured well, we'll take a good starting spot," he said. "This isn't Sunday. This is just Thursday and we'll see what happens."
WINNER. Richard Childress Racing. No one seemed to handle NASCAR's cooling system changes better than RCR, whose driver Kevin Harvick pushed the rear bumper of Matt Kenseth out front for 13 laps without swapping. With most cars, that would mean engine extinction but for Childress it was a confidence-builder their equipment could outlast others in similar circumstances Sunday.
But Harvick's fourth-place finish paled in comparison to a 1-2 Childress punch in the second Duel. Jeff Burton nipped Clint Bowyer to the line, the duo settling the race among themselves while combining to lead 27 of 60 laps. For Burton, it was his first win of any kind since 2008 while giving hope his 0-for-Daytona 500 streak will come to an end at 17.
"There's the 500, a championship, the two biggest things on my list I want to get done," he said. "Hopefully, we're just one step closer to them."
LOSER. Hendrick Motorsports/Dale Jr. Until Wednesday, the first Duel seemed like Hendrick's to lose. But then Earnhardt wrecked, Johnson changed engines and most of the first 150-miler was spent learning from midpack. Although Earnhardt and Mark Martin hooked up at one point, the trio spent most of their time apart and struggled with their temperatures the second they attached themselves to the back of a two-car draft. Every time they backed off, momentum was lost and they combined to lead a total of just three laps.
"We've gotta think about, every second up to the 500, how to make this car go longer without swapping," said Junior on the radio while Steve Letarte, his crew chief was baffled as to how long Harvick and the RCR cars could draft behind someone in comparison. To add insult to injury, Jeff Gordon had the best Hendrick car, working perfectly with young Trevor Bayne in Duel No. 2 until the rookie made a costly mistake, got out of shape out of turn 4 and wrecked them both coming to the checkered flag. As of now, the No. 24 will fix their primary car -- keeping them in the second spot for the 500 -- but HMS has plenty of homework to do between now and Sunday.
LOSER. Roush Fenway Racing. With two straight victories to end last season (Carl Edwards), Ford's top four-car organization had high hopes entering this year's 500. Matt Kenseth had a decent performance, drafting with Harvick for much of the first Duel but the Edwards/Greg Biffle partnership wasn't so lucky, faltering badly down the stretch. Add in a wreck by Ragan, and you have just one Roush Fenway car starting inside the top 20 as it's back to the drawing board for a manufacturer that's had more than its fair share of troubles the last few years.
"I [still] think we're gonna be good," said Edwards. "I think for the 500 it's gonna be an all-day, whose car can last longest, whose engine is the strongest and which drivers can work together the best. I think that's gonna win it and I feel like we've got a good enough team to do that."
LOSER. Joey Logano. Logano endured the worst wreck in either Duel, after a bump by Michael Waltrip had him sailing toward the inside wall on the front stretch.
"It's a tough one to swallow," said Logano. "I'm sure our other car will be just as good. Our shootout didn't go so well [he wrecked on Saturday night] and neither did this race. Maybe the third time is the charm."
Perhaps, as it is the youngster's third year on the circuit. But with an ugly track record at Daytona -- he has yet to run higher than 19th in four career starts -- don't expect much.
THE JURY'S STILL OUT. NASCAR's new, two-by-two drafting package. The drivers love it but this style of plate racing remains controversial with fans. Drivers essentially need a drafting partner to get to the front.
"I've never experienced anything like this," said Bill Elliott, who should know better than anyone -- the two-time Daytona 500 winner holds the alltime track record of 212+ MPH from 1987, the year before restrictor plates came to pass. "When you get two really good cars that can work well together, they're going to be hard to beat [on their own]."
Not everyone is convinced what we saw on Thursday will translate over to the 500.
"We're going to have 400 miles of some stuff happening, and 100 miles of more stuff happening than you can keep up with," said Burton. "We're going to have six or seven cautions in the last 100 miles, a short race 'till the end and the same Daytona 500 we've had in the last six or seven."
"It's going to be different getting up to that point ... but when somebody has a chance to take the Daytona 500 trophy home, you do things that you weren't going to do 100 laps before that. It's the same thing every time we come down here."