By Brian Eberly, Contributing Writer
While the Daytona 500 looms large, Brad Keselowski has already practiced showering in Gatorade and Miller Lite in victory lane since the calendar turned to 2018. The Roster Hills, Michigan native won last weekend in the Advance Auto Parts Clash, the exhibition race to start the 2018 season at Daytona International Speedway. Returning teammate Joey Logano was second and Team Penske newcomer Ryan Blaney was fourth as Fords swept the top four positions.
Keselowski enters his ninth full-time season driving for one of the top teams in all of motorsports led by Roger Penske, who will turn 81 next week. Not much has changed since the end of the 2017 season regarding key personnel, as Paul Wolfe returns for his eighth season as crew chief of the No. 2 car and the majority of the road and pit crew remain the same.
The one visible change will be on the hood and quarter panels of the No. 2 Ford. Discount Tire steps up their relationship with Team Penske as the company’s red and black logos will adorn the car for 10 races this season as well as serve as an associate sponsor in the remaining races. Miller Lite returns to Team Penske for its 27th season on the No. 2 car and will serve as the primary for 11 races as well as an associate in the remaining events.
The 34-year-old driver has made the playoffs in six of the past seven seasons and heads into 2018 with a streak of seven consecutive seasons going to victory lane in Cup Series competition. With the continuity of the No. 2 team that made the Championship 4 in 2017, Keselowski is one of the early-season title favorites, despite the perceived disadvantage of those drivers with the Ford logo on their hood.
Known for being one of the more outspoken drivers in the garage area, Keselowski said after last season’s finale at Homestead-Miami that Ford could “take a drubbing next year.” He was referencing the domination of Toyota, which won 16 of the 36 events, including eight of the 10 races in the playoffs. Toyota led more laps than Ford and Chevrolet combined and the manufacturer’s duo of Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch led 40% of the total laps run across the season.
In addition, Chevrolet has rolled out their new car, the Camaro, which is expected to have more downforce similar to the Toyota camp. Ford, Roger Penske confirmed last weekend, plans to debut a new car on track for the 2019 season.
“Look, we can’t really use that as an excuse,” Penske said of Ford having the oldest body in the series. “There’s no reason to. I think we thought the same thing coming out of St. Petersburg last year with our IndyCar, that we might not have the power that Honda had, and we won 10 races. That’s just — I keep reminding the team of that. We’ve got to race all year. We’ll have a new body next year.”
The rollout of the new inspection system, the Optical Scanning Station, is also expected to help close the gap between manufacturers. Keselowski indicated that it would certainly level the playing field for Ford.
Penske concurred, saying during his post-Clash media availability, “I think one thing that’s going to be different is that this new inspection system is going to be sure that all the cars are on the same platform, and I think that’s going to bring us closer together.”
After damaging his primary car during the Duels, Keselowski will start from the 31st position in the Daytona 500. But where you start on a restrictor-plate track is basically meaningless, especially for a driver as good on superspeedways as Keselowski. While he hasn’t won one of the sport’s most prestigious events, Keselowski has won a July race at Daytona and has the most superspeedway wins among active drivers, with five victories at Talladega.
The 2012 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion won twice in the first six races of last season and with his Clash victory in hand appears poised for another strong start.
“It means a lot,” Keselowski said of winning the Clash. “I’ve never won anything here during Speedweeks, and I feel like I’ve choked them away, to be quite honest. You need one to break through. Hopefully, this is our breakthrough.”