Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – With the season-opening Daytona 500 a little more than a week away, the NASCAR Cup Series drivers and teams are holding “virtual” Media Days – a nod to the annual day – pre-COVID – when journalists from across the country get an opportunity to question the full lineup of competitors.
Drivers spoke about their Daytona 500 chances, expectations for the season, changes to the schedule, new teams and what they anticipated going into the Feb. 14 Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the world-renowned Daytona International Speedway.
KESELOWSKI WANTS TO JOIN AN ELITE CLUB
Brad Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford, is coming off a career year with four victories and a ticket to contend for the 2020 title. The 2012 Cup Series champion was a Championship 4 round competitor in the 2020 season finale, finishing runner-up to Chase Elliott. The second-place finish in the standings marked his sixth top-10 overall finish in the eight years since his championship run. Here are his thoughts on the possibility – and desire – to win his first Daytona 500. His best ever showing in the race is third back in 2014. He’s had only two top-10 finishes in the 13 races at the track since – that does include a win in the 2016 summer-time 400-miler.
“It’s definitely the one big box I don’t have checked,” said Brad Keselowski. “I’ve got the championship. I’ve won every other major but Daytona. The only other person that can claim that actively right now is Kevin Harvick and I want to join that club. It’s a big club to be in – to have all the majors and to have a championship. I know I’m right there and I want to make it happen and feel like I’ve done a lot of the right things to make it happen. I haven’t been perfect, but it’s certainly part of the source of frustration, for sure.”
NEAR-MISSES HAVEN’T FRUSTRATED BLANEY
Ryan Blaney, driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford, has certainly been close to claiming his first Daytona 500 victory. The 24-year old has finished runner-up twice in the last four years, including 2020. He led a dominating 118 of the 207 laps to finish seventh in 2018. And Blaney said he’s more encouraged than frustrated by the near-misses.
“Obviously, I’ve had a good shot of winning the 500, I’d say three times I had a really good shot of winning it. In ’17, we run second. In ’18, we had the fastest car and we got caught up in that wreck at the end that I caused on accident, and last year we lost by a couple feet. You’re frustrated at the time, in the moment because you just lost the race, but looking back on it I’m not frustrated by it.
“I’ve looked at it as I’ve had a couple of really great opportunities to win the 500, what can I do better or different to give us a better shot at it again. That’s kind of how I look at it, but whether it’s something I did. I re-watch the race and I’m like, ‘Man, if I’m by myself in this situation again I should do this differently and it might have given us a better shot to win that race.’ That’s what I look at. I don’t really try to get frustrated by it. I just try to figure out ways to do things better in the moment if those situations come up again to give us a better shot at it.”
CINDRIC TAKES FIRST SHOT AT DAYTONA 500
Austin Cindric, the reigning NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, will be attempting to make his first Daytona 500. The Team Penske driver will be defending his 2020 Xfinity title when the year starts, but will be making several NASCAR Cup Series starts this season in anticipation of moving into the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford next year. The 22-year-old will drive the No. 33 Ford Mustang out of the Team Penske stable in the Daytona 500. He does not have a guaranteed starting position in the race and must race his way onto the grid with a good finish in the BlueGreen Vacations Duel 150s.
“I think anyone who makes plans at superspeedways, do it because they’re nervous because there’s no way to prepare for these races,” said Austin Cindric. “There’s no way to prepare for those scenarios. Qualifying is significantly important for both of our opportunities to make it into the race, but also where we start in the Duels. I think we’ll play it as it goes. I’d be extremely unlucky if I didn’t have a Penske-affiliated car with me in the Duels, so that would be nice to have and nice to have teammates.
“If I get in the race, hopefully I can help those guys get stage points and try and fight for a race win and get a Penske car and a Ford into Victory Lane for the Daytona 500. There’s a lot of work to still do, but there are definitely a lot of different scenarios and a lot of things you have to prepare for and sometimes it will come down to the small details and hopefully it doesn’t have to come down to missing big wrecks and the things you’re accustomed to seeing in speedway racing, but you definitely have to be prepared for.”
DIBENEDETTO LOOKS TO BUILD ON 2020 SUCCESS
Matt DiBenedetto remains one of NASCAR’s favorite sons with fans cheering for his underdog stories and competitors respecting the highly-motivated march to a top-tier team. The 29-year old Californian has worked his way up the NASCAR Cup Series ranks and will drive the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford for the second consecutive season. He tied his career-best NASCAR Cup Series finish with runner-up showings at both Las Vegas races and a third-place finish at Kentucky last year. And he finished out 2020 with three straight top 10 runs – promising that good conclusion to 2020 is a good omen to the start of 2021.
“It felt like the last half of the season – especially the last third of the season – is where all of a sudden it really clicked for us as a team,” said Matt DiBenedetto. “That’s why you saw us clicking off top 10s consistently, running up front, competing for wins because I felt like we were getting to where we needed to be as a team. Yeah, that 100 percent that momentum I feel confident is going to carry directly over into the season just because we have all that time together, we have all those notes together and that’s where it’s really coming together, so I’ve been pretty pumped about this season because of that exactly.”
DiBenedetto insists that navigating a difficult path to a top ride is exactly what has strengthened his resolve and ultimately, he believes, will result in that first career NASCAR Cup Series victory.
“I think people understand a little bit of my path to get here and the struggles and the pressure and everything that I’ve overcome,” DiBenedetto said. “I mean this in a humble way, it’s humbled me to an extreme that I couldn’t possibly explain, but it’s also made me so mentally tough, and I’m thankful for that because it’s made me who I am today to where I don’t even think about that type of stuff or the pressure. I more look at it as great opportunity and I would have done anything my whole career to be sitting in this position where I’m really establishing myself in the Cup Series driving the 21. We have all this momentum to go out there and have what I feel like will be the best year of my career by far, so, no, to answer your question. I’m pretty mentally tough at this point and I’m thankful for that and it honestly doesn’t even pop up in my brain. I’m just excited and focused on the competition side and the opportunity we have this year to go kick some butt.”
NO HESITATION FOR NEWMAN AT DAYTONA
Perhaps more so than any other competitor, Roush-Fenway Racing driver Ryan Newman is looking forward to taking another Daytona 500 green flag. The 43-year-old veteran and 2008 Daytona 500 winner was injured in a last lap accident racing to the checkered flag last year. He quickly assured journalists on Monday there was no hesitation – “zero” – about suiting up in the No. 6 Ford and returning to the seat for this year’s Great American Race. Perhaps, the motivation is even greater.
“I’ve had zero [hesitation],” said Ryan Newman. “I’ve had people question me if I’ve questioned it myself, but the reality is, and I had this conversation just a little while ago doing an interview, was God works in mysterious ways and one of those mysterious ways that I can’t answer is the deletion of that chapter or that part of my hard drive that was that day, so that I can’t remember the potential tragedy that was it.
“So, I don’t have any fear because I don’t have any memory, and that was the same analogy I used with him was if you’ve ever been in a car accident or you know somebody who has been in a car accident and they were conscious the whole time, they will always carry that fear with them. I have no memory [of the accident], therefore I have no fear, but it’s also my passion and my love and what I enjoy doing. It’s a paid hobby. It’s the most amazing job you could ever have, and that’s where my focus is. I just am doing my best to continue and try to become a Cup champion.
“That’s the way I feel is I still have another opportunity and God has given me that opportunity and I’ll enjoy it with my two beautiful girls and our team together.”
Newman conceded the accident has certainly affected his “big picture” view and been a reminder to appreciate things more – from competition in NASCAR’s highest level to simpler things in life too.
“People have asked me, ‘Have you changed?’ and I continually say, ‘No, I haven’t changed,’ but what happens is it’s a magnifier, Newman said. “Things that you love, you love more because part of you was taken away for a little bit of time, so, yeah, it’s opened my eyes and made me more appreciative of a lot of things in life, and probably a little bit more positive and I guess jolly, you could say, in respect to some of the other things that don’t go so well. I feel like it has magnified my personality for all the positive things, and therefore decreased some of the negative things. I don’t think that’s considered a change to me, that’s really just an adjustment.”
CHASTAIN LOOKING FORWARD TO OPPORTUNITY
One of the most anticipated new pairings in the NASCAR Cup Series is Ross Chastain in the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42 Chevrolet. Chastain, 28, has competed at the NASCAR Cup Series level for four years, but this will mark the Floridan’s first season with a high-profile perennial competitive team in Ganassi. Chastain drove the team’s Xfinity Series car to his first NASCAR national series win – taking the 2018 trophy at Las Vegas.
Chastain competed for Niece Motorsports in the 2019 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship and finished runner-up for the title. Last year he contended for the Xfinity Series championship, finishing seventh in the title run for Kaulig Racing. The watermelon farmer is extremely eager to seize and capitalize on the best opportunity of his career with Ganassi this season.
Ask if he feels pressure to make this big chance work, Chastain, conceded, “yes.”
“As a racer, yeah. I don’t want to go fail, so, there is no alternative,” said Ross Chastain. “There is no Plan B. We have the farm and will still grow and sell watermelons, but yeah as a racer, I want to succeed, and I want to do my job. Yeah, this is it.”
And, he acknowledged, his reputation for being a hard-charger precedes him at Ganassi. But, perhaps this opportunity means a different approach.
“Yes. Definitely blend in more. I’m not going to let anybody pass. I’m not going to purposely run into anybody. I think that’s maybe been embellished a little bit over the years and I haven’t done any work to diminish it. I’ve embraced it and enjoyed how people view me and how people talk about me. We’ve used it internally with the race teams that I’ve driven for over the last two years to really motivate and find that extra little bit of speed in the race trucks and cars and I would not trade it for anything.
“All those steps and mistakes are what got me here. But yes, definitely blend in a little better. I don’t want or need a line of drivers or crew chiefs or anybody to be lined-up at the car after these races. This is the premier series and I have to elevate to that level. I have a long way to go. This is going to be the biggest step of my career.”
WALLACE READY TO MAKE NASCAR DEBUT WITH 23XI
After much excitement and ado, NBA legend Michael Jordan officially begins his role as co-owner of 23XI Racing – a team he formed with NASCAR Cup Series superstar – and three-time defending Daytona 500 winner – Denny Hamlin. They have hired another of the sport’s brightest stars, Bubba Wallace, to drive the No. 23 Toyota this season.
Wallace knows there are a lot of expectations for him and the new team. He knows there will be a lot of eyeballs and Monday morning quarterbacking judging the success of the new star-studded operation. And the 27-year-old also knows, this is his first and best chance to run up front and possibly get to hoist a NASCAR Cup Series trophy. Wallace has also taken notice of the significant uptick in the minority ownership (music superstar Pitbull owns part of Daniel Suarez No. 99 Trackhouse Racing team) in NASCAR this season.
“It’s big,” said Bubba Wallace. “It shows other minorities, ‘hey, if these guys are investing then why can’t we” and it will continue to grow our sport. That’s what we need. It’s all about exposure, reaching out to the right people because they have ideas of how they want to see success and grow their name, grow their brand and getting it to be part of NASCAR where a lot of minorities, that’s not really where they go to, which is NASCAR. But we’re changing the game with everything that happened last year. I think we’ve put NASCAR on the map in a lot of new areas and a lot of new fans looking to tune in this year which is huge for all of us. We just need to keep the ball rolling.”
Wallace, who has three career top-five and nine career top-10 finishes reiterated his eagerness to get the season started next week at Daytona, where he finished runner-up in his first ever Daytona 500 start in 2018.
“I’ve felt more passion, more competitive, more drive with everything that’s out in front of me.
“We look at Daytona and look at the whole perspective that this is an incredible opportunity but we can’t let that get too big. We can’t let it super-cede our expectations and our mission to compete. Once you do that you do that that’s when mistakes come. Oh, didn’t expect that. You have to be ready. It’s another season for us and things are a little different.
Beyond the new team and car, Wallace said he was confident in his own competitiveness behind the wheel.
“I look at the races we had driving the 43 [for Richard Petty Motorsports 2018-2020]. The races where we were running up front and competing we were strong. I look at Indy two years ago and even last year. I know how to race against those guys. Do they expect me to be up there? No. Do they race me different because of it? Yes.
“I think that’s the biggest thing is that’s going to change for other drivers thinking, hopefully, this kid knows what he’s doing up here and so we have to race him a little bit different. I’m not expecting it to be a cakewalk at all. We’re there to race and race hard and so that’s what I’m looking forward to the most – is having more of those running in the top 10 each and every week and showing we’re a factor and able to contend for wins.
SUAREZ IS CONFIDENT ABOUT 2021
As with Bubba Wallace, Daniel Suarez is eager to move from the microphone talking about his new team to the steering wheel winning for his new team. The 28-year-old Mexican joins the newly-formed Trackhouse Racing operations to drive the No. 99 Chevrolet this season – a team owned by NASCAR star Justin Marks and the world-famous entertainer, Pitbull.
Suarez and Pitbull have mutual friends and the pairing along with Marks has all the foundation to make the former NASCAR Xfinity Series champion a bona fide contender in 2021. Suarez has eight top-five finishes in four fulltime NASCAR Cup Series seasons – and raced for three different teams two different manufacturers previously. He feels like this pairing with Marks and Trackhouse is his best shot to shine in stock car’s big leagues.
“As a driver, the last thing you want is to be moving from team to team and from manufacturer to manufacturer,” said Daniel Suarez. “But sometimes it’s just out of control of the driver or the team. Different situations are different experiences. It’s very difficult to be in that position because if you think about it, every single team that is successful in NASCAR is not a new team. It’s a team that has been together for years. And it takes time to build that, to build that relationship, to build that understanding, to build that I know what he wants, I know what he needs.
“It takes time especially when most of the race tracks that we go to, we only go once a year. By the time that you learn something, maybe the next time you’re going to try is going to be the next year. So, it’s a process. With that being said, I have learned a lot as well, as a driver. I was ready to go to the Cup Series in 2017. Talent-wise, I was ready because I’m very fortunate that I’m talented to drive race cars. Experience-wise, I was not. I didn’t have the right people around me telling me what to do and what not to do. I don’t have a racing family behind me that can tell me what to do and what not to do. I had to learn all those things in that way by myself.
“But with that being said, I’m very lucky that I still have a very good opportunity with an amazing team; with way more experience than a few years ago, and with a very good opportunity to start the season very competitive. The No. 99 Chevy in Daytona is going to have as good a shot to win the race as any other team. And that’s something that puts a huge smile on my face.”