DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Brad Keselowski trudged out of the infield care center, climbed into a waiting golf cart and sped toward his motorhome.
No interviews. No autographs. Just another Daytona 500 disappointment.
Keselowski was one of three former NASCAR champions — along with Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. — who failed to end lifetime droughts in “The Great American Race” on Sunday. The most frustrating part? All of them had cars good enough to end double-digit skids in NASCAR’s signature event.
“It’s just par for the course, just used to it,” Busch bemoaned. “Come down here every year to just find out when and where I’m going to crash and what lap I come out of the care center.”
Busch is now winless in 18 starts in the Daytona 500, a baffling losing streak for a guy who has won 224 times across NASCAR’s top three series. The two-time series champ (2015, ’19) was caught in a late crash and finished 19th.
But he took solace in leading Lap 200 — the scheduled last lap before several crashes forced two overtimes — for the first time.
“I wish it was 1998 rules,” he said, referring to seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 win in his 20th try under caution 25 years ago. “I don’t think you’re ever confident. Who won? I don’t even know who lucked into it.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the race for the first time in 12 tries, one of five drivers in the 40-car field with double-digit skids heading into the opener.
“There you have it,” Busch quipped.
Truex was evaluating the numbers and thought this was his day. He was driving the No. 19 Toyota in his 19th Daytona 500 and on February 19th. Maybe he was onto something because he crashed with 19 laps to go and ended up 16th.
Truex, the 2017 champ, also left Daytona International Speedway without stopping to talk about his night.
Keselowski, the 2012 champ, finished 22nd and fell to 0 for 14 in the 500, despite leading a race-high 42 laps. He was out front on a restart with 13 laps to go in regulation before fading along with several other Fords.
It was Keselowski’s third consecutive gut-wrenching finish in the 500.
Last year, Keselowski led a race-high 67 laps before getting shuffled back late. In 2021, he was running second and had a huge run down the backstretch before teammate Joey Logano blocked him and crashed both of them.
“You just feel like you’re in position and it doesn’t happen and, yeah, it’s super painful,” Keselowski said Saturday after posting the fastest lap in final practice. “The closer you are to winning the race, the more painful it is.”
Hall of Famers Tony Stewart, Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin are the most notable drivers who never won the Daytona 500.
Truex, Busch and Keselowski were looking for a breakthrough Sunday, and each of them led laps. Truex was out front for 13 trips around the 2 1/2-mile superspeedway; Busch led six laps.
The trio still should be hopeful coming back in 2024. After all, Hall of Famer David Pearson needed 15 tries to win the Daytona 500. Busch’s older brother, Kurt, needed 16. And Earnhardt’s long-awaiting breakthrough is revered as an iconic moment in racing history.
“You know that it’s just barely out of reach and so that certainly builds a frustration,” Keselowski said. “We came down here a couple of years where we weren’t even close, and you left here going, ‘Well, that sucked,’ and it didn’t hurt as bad. It hurts a lot worse to be close.
“The Olympic saying is the worst thing you can do is get a silver. Bronze, you’re happy you get a medal and gold, of course, you’re happy to leave. But silver, you know you’re that close and it just didn’t happen, and I feel like I have a lot of Daytona 500 silvers.”
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