DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Brad Keselowski opened Speedweeks, before he turned a single lap, as the 7-1 favorite to win the Daytona 500.
Now that he has the first victory of the season, Keselowski is shaping up to be a safe bet.
Keselowski led a 1-2 Team Penske sweep Sunday in the exhibition The Clash at Daytona International Speedway. The race marks the opening of Speedweeks and is the first chance for teams to show their offseason work.
“I have never won anything here during Speedweeks and I feel like I have choked them away to be quite honest,” Keselowski said in victory lane. “You need one to break through. Hopefully, this is our breakthrough.”
Indeed, Keselowski is one of the best restrictor-plate racers in NASCAR. Although he’s a five-time winner at Talladega in Alabama, his lone victory at Daytona International Speedway was in the 2016 summer race.
When it comes to Speedweeks — The Clash, the Thursday twin qualifying races, and finally the season-opening Daytona 500 next Sunday — Keselowski always came up empty. His best finish in the Daytona 500 was third in 2013, and he finished fourth a year earlier. In his prior appearances in the all-star Clash, Keselowski finished inside the top-nine in four of his five races.
“It was a good day, a great start to Speedweeks, and now there’s two more to go,” Keselowski said.
The 17-car field is set by a draw and Keselowski started last. He had 75 laps to race his way to the front, which was easy enough for the three-car Penske contingent. Keselowski had the race in control as the Penske drivers closed in on the checkered flag.
He had a piece of garbage stuck to the front of his Ford, and that appeared to be his only challenge.
“I was worried about the (competitors) but the car was way overheating there at the end and I was more worried about it blowing up than anything else,” he said.
Ryan Blaney pulled out of line from behind Keselowski on the final lap in an attempt to beat his teammate, but he was left alone in the bottom lane and faded into traffic. Joey Logano didn’t have enough help to mount a challenge on Keselowski and had to settle for second.
“It is fun when you are up there running and you don’t know what is going to happen,” Logano said. “The suspense keeps building as you are running single-file: three to go, two to go, here comes the white flag — when do you make the move? Do you make a move? Sometimes you make and it is never the right thing.
“You are waiting to see what everyone else is going to do and you are thinking about the type of people they are and what the possible moves are they will make. Then as soon as we hit the white flag Blaney was able to go to the bottom, I had to stay on top because I would have gotten passed.”
Kyle Larson made contact with Jimmie Johnson on the final lap to trigger an accident that allowed Keselowski an easier route to victory lane.
Blaney faded to fourth, behind defending Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch, as Ford drivers took the top four spots. It was a nice rebound from qualifying earlier Sunday when the fastest Ford driver was Kevin Harvick at eighth.
In a race that means nothing beyond an early glimpse of who might contend in the Daytona 500, Blaney was disappointed with his finish.
“I thought we were in a good spot. Even though Brad is one of the best at doing this, I thought we had a good chance at it,” Blaney said. “I probably didn’t pull out at a very good time. I thought it was enough, but I got hung out.
“I should know better than that. I need to learn from that.”
Alex Bowman Bowman won the pole for the Daytona 500 in his debut as the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet, piloted until last season by NASCAR rock star Dale Earnhardt Jr. Six of Earnhardt’s 17 career victories at Daytona International Speedway came in that car, including one of his Daytona 500 victories.
Earnhardt was a seven-time pole winner at Daytona, too.
Now retired, the empty seat in the No. 88 went to Bowman, and he wasted little time making the Camaro his own. Bowman turned a lap at 195.644 mph Sunday to earn the top starting spot for the Daytona 500.
“I think it’s still a little surreal,” said Bowman, who will race in his second Daytona 500.
“It’s a dream come true just to drive for Hendrick Motorsports,” Bowman said. “I never would have thought it would happen after the path my career took.”
Denny Hamlin, the 2016 winner, qualified second in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing with a lap at 195.092. Only the top two cars locked in spots for next Sunday’s season-opening race in this round of qualifying. The remainder of the field will be set by a pair of qualifying races Thursday.