Enough with practice, next up is the Great American Race

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Toyota drivers hope no practice makes perfect.

Ford drivers, on the other hand, think they found something en masse during Saturday‘s final practice for the DAYTONA 500.

At least Brad Keselowski believes he did.

Needless to say, the final practice for the Great American Race brought radically different approaches from the three NASCAR Cup Series manufacturers.

The Fords drafted in a large pack, with Keselowski setting the top speed in the session at 191.201 mph (47.071 seconds).

A handful of Chevrolet drivers lacked the same level of organization, looking for tweaks they could make to their individual cars.

From the Toyota camp, Tyler Reddick practiced pit entry and pit exit but didn‘t complete a lap in his No. 45 23XI Racing Camry. The rest of the Toyota contingent eschewed practice entirely.

Keselowski found practice in the draft with his fellow Ford drivers extremely productive.

“The best practice is not when you get it right; it‘s when you can‘t get it wrong,” Keselowski said. “I think we‘re practicing to where we can‘t get it wrong and looking for any little hole and what we have to be able (to do) to remedy it.

Keselowski ran 14 laps during the session while his RFK Racing teammate, Chris Buescher, remained in the garage.

“I think Chris‘ car was dialed in really well and they were in a great spot, and they still are in a great spot,” Keselowski explained. “I was a little less happy with mine and wanted to try to find something, so I‘m happy to put that work in this morning to see if we could find it—and I feel like we did.”

AJ Allmendinger was fastest among the Chevrolet drivers and seventh fastest overall at 190.811 mph. For the driver of the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet, practice was another chance to learn and gain familiarity with the NASCAR Cup Series Next Gen car, and it helped Allmendinger set his strategy for Sunday‘s race.

“I think, as we‘ve all seen, it‘s hard to get a third line working around here,” Allmendinger said. “In the past, I was always one of those guys that would kind of just sit back early on in the race and just let it develop. Some of it, at those times, maybe I didn‘t quite have the speed to consistently run up front. So, it was more about trying to time when to get up front and stay there at the end of the race.

“With this car, I feel like you have to have more track position early on. So, with 100 laps to go—I think 60 to 70 to go—you need your track position. It‘s hard to try to get back up there. What I fought in the (Thursday‘s) Duel was I felt like we were pretty decent, but it‘s just hard to make moves. So, I think trying to get up front—however we do that—and obviously trying to stay there, especially after halfway, is going to be really critical.”

The “King” Cherishes His DAYTONA 500 Crowns

Deservedly so, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Richard Petty will join a group of nine drivers who have won both a NASCAR Cup Series title and the DAYTONA 500 trophy to deliver the starting command for the Great American Race (Feb. 19 at 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

The high-profile names include Petty, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Allison, Bill Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Jarrett. Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, and reigning series champion Joey Logano will give the command Sunday as the sport celebrates its 75th Anniversary. Three of them — Johnson, Harvick and Logano – will then climb into their cars and compete in the DAYTONA 500.

Among those champions, NASCAR Hall of Famer Petty is the all-time winningest DAYTONA 500 competitor with seven victories.

“It‘s really hard to say,” Petty said of choosing his favorite victory. “I‘ve been fortunate to win seven races and two or three I probably shouldn‘t have won but then there was two or three we had trouble and should have won. So, it all equals itself out. The one that really haunts me is the ‘76 race when [David] Pearson and myself crashed in Turn 4. That still bothers me, did I made the mistake, or did he make the mistake, must have been I made the mistake because I ran second.”

“If you look back at Richard Petty races, and probably the thing that made people stand out and pay attention was that I was winning the DAYTONA 500,” he continued. “If you win the DAYTONA 500, you‘re a winner all year long. … Winning the DAYTONA 500 is winning NASCAR‘s Super Bowl.”

Champions Still Racing for a DAYTONA 500 Trophy

There are five former NASCAR Cup Series champions competing in Sunday‘s DAYTONA 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio); still looking for a victory in the sport‘s grandest race. Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch have six season titles among themselves but a combined zero wins in the DAYTONA 500.

The 2021 season champ Larson will start his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on the outside of the front row for Sunday‘s race. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate Elliott, the 2020 champion, will start eighth Sunday in the No. 9 Chevrolet. The two have 16 DAYTONA 500 starts between them with Larson‘s best showing of seventh in 2019 and Elliott‘s runner-up effort in 2021.

Brad Keselowski, the 2012 season champion will line up 10th on the grid Sunday. He has 13 starts in the DAYTONA 500 and only three top 10s. His best finish in the 500 is third in 2014, however he won the 2016 summer race at Daytona.

Martin Truex Jr., the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion, rolls off 16th on Sunday. The driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota holds the longest record of futility in this race among active drivers. He is 0-for-18 in the 500 and 0-for-35 on the Daytona International Speedway high banks in the NASCAR Cup Series. His best finish in the DAYTONA 500 was runner-up in 2016, but that‘s one of only three top-10 showings in the race.

And Kyle Busch, a two-time series champion, is 0-for-17 in the DAYTONA 500 with a best showing of runner-up in 2019. He will make his first start for Richard Childress Racing from the rear of the field after having to go to a back-up No. 8 Chevrolet after being collected in an accident while leading Thursday‘s Duel 150 qualifying race.

Keselowski, now an owner with the Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing team, was fastest in the No. 6 Ford in Saturday‘s final DAYTONA 500 practice.

“The DAYTONA 500, to me over the years, has probably been more focused on the speed of the cars and the willingness of the drivers to make bold moves,” Keselowski said. “I think, accordingly, I haven‘t been able to close the 500 out. We‘ve had really fast cars and caught some really poor breaks and then there have been some races where I felt like I didn‘t execute at a high enough level. I think there‘s probably a little mixture of all those things on why I haven‘t been able to win this race.”

“It‘s the last crown jewel I don‘t have,” Keselowski added. “I‘ve got the championship, the Brickyard [at Indianapolis] and the Southern 500 (at Darlington, S.C.) and the Bristol Night races and the Talladegas. Those mean the world to me, they really do, but the DAYTONA 500 is still the biggest race of the year no matter how you look at it and it still stings to not have it. It stings to have been so close in so many different ways.”

Zane Smith‘s Winning Streak

Reigning NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series champion Zane Smith is enjoying a rarefied run of competition. He‘s succeeding in everything he drives.

Smith, who won the Phoenix Truck Series season finale from pole position to claim his first big NASCAR title in November, started the 2023 year off co-driving to victory with NASCAR Cup Series‘ driver Harrison Burton in the IMSA-sanctioned Michelin Pilot Challenge race on the Daytona International Speedway road course in January.

On Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway, he raced to a top-10 finish in the Duel 150 qualifying race earning his first ever start DAYTONA 500 start on Sunday.

And on Friday night, Smith drove his No. 36 Front Row Motorsports Ford F150 to victory in the 2023 season-opening NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series race — his second consecutive in the race.

“That was something we kind of joked about,” Smith said smiling. “I mean, really from the final half of the year last year and then rolling into this year, I just felt like we just had so much momentum.”

Smith conceded, it has been an incredible run to the biggest start of his career coming Sunday.

“In all honestly, yes, I‘m nervous, but I‘m just so ready for Sunday to be here,” Smith said. “Obviously [Thursday night] was a ton of fun getting into the 500. And that [Friday night] was a win for us with literally the same group on our truck, the same group we have on the Cup car.

“I‘m so excited for Sunday,” he added. “It‘s going to be such a cool experience, obviously with two of my really good friends that we grew up together in Noah [Gragson] and Riley [Herbst] and it‘ll be awesome.”

— NASCAR News Wire —

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