AP FILE Photo
In this Jan. 11 photo, Brad Keselowski drives on pit road during NASCAR testing at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Brad Keselowski strolled through the Daytona 500 Club with his cellphone in one hand and a half-empty bottle in the other.
Nope, not beer. Not this time.
Keselowski was drinking orange juice Thursday at Daytona 500 Media Day, which officially kicked off Speedweeks. Still, the reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion was his usual, laid-back, outspoken self, offering up some of the best one-liners during a daylong event filled with playful jokes, repetitive questions, canned answers and optimistic outlooks for the upcoming season.
For Keselowski, it wasn’t all that different from his last moment in the spotlight. He just didn’t have a little buzz going.
“If you drink enough orange juice, you can drink a lot of beer,” said Keselowski, who memorably chugged away in Victory Lane after clinching his first Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
Three months later, he was fielding questions about defending his title, tweeting from his race car — which he famously did during last year’s Daytona 500 — the budding relationship between competitors Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and his plan to purchase a tank.
“There is just something very rootsy about it,” Keselowski said. “A man should own a tank.”
Where would he put it?
“Right in my driveway,” he said.
The tank talk was just one of the many topics addressed by the 50-plus drivers who took part in the eight-hour event at Daytona International Speedway. No surprise, the Patrick and Stenhouse saga — they announced they were dating last month — took center stage.
“It some respects, it’s just a relationship,” five-time champion Jimmie Johnson said. “Clearly, there’s more to it. It doesn’t hurt anything. It will keep people looking and watching and curious as to what that dynamic is on the track, I’m sure. ... We’ll all be watching with great curiosity.”
Patrick and Stenhouse were open about their relationship, clearly ready for all the ribbing. They shared Valentine’s Day plans with reporters. He called her “hot.” She joked about what would happen if he wrecked her on the track.
“He better have a really good, ‘I’m sorry,”’ Patrick said with a wink.
Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon was fielding questions of his own after filming a “Harlem Shake” video at his race shop — even climbing atop a race car to dance — and the evidence is now online.
“One of the best times I’ve ever had,” Gordon said. “Certainly the best time I ever had in my race shop with my guys in there. Luckily it was quick so it didn’t take them away from their jobs too long because there’s a lot going on at the shop. I’m a little embarrassed at my dancing, but it was still worth it. It was a great time.”
Not everyone had a blast at media day.
Juan Pablo Montoya stared down a reporter who insinuated that the driver might hit another jet dryer this season. Montoya slammed into a dryer during last year’s Daytona 500, setting off a fiery explosion that halted the race.
“People are dumb enough to think I hit the thing on purpose, like I really want to try and kill myself,” Montoya said later. “It is kind of crazy. That was a freak accident, and in a way, I was very, very lucky to walk away from that one. Not only myself, but the guy driving the jet dryer. To walk away with nothing out of that it was a miracle. I was glad it was over.”
Joey Logano, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch talked about being with new teams. Kyle Larson, Dylan Kwasniewski, Ben Kennedy and Ryan Blaney looked and sounded every bit like eager youngsters. Austin Dillon wore a black cowboy hat to the event. Dave Blaney donned a pink firesuit.
Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip, meanwhile, unveiled a green-and-white car to honor and raise funds for Sandy Hook Elementary School. Waltrip was set to drive the No. 30 Toyota in a one-race deal. Instead, he will be behind the wheel of No. 26 to honor the victims of the Dec. 14 massacre in Newtown, Conn., where 20 first-graders and six adults were gunned down.
Waltrip met with families from the area recently.
“I left there three hours later, but part of me is still there,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that. I didn’t have that same feeling before I got there. I was sad, I was hurt, I was sorry, but it wasn’t personal. That day, it became personal.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. praised NASCAR for taking steps to mandate baseline concussion testing for drivers in 2014. Earnhardt missed two races following a concussion last season, knocking him out of contention for the championship.
“When you get into an accident, you may have, may not have had a concussion, you can take this test again and find out exactly what is happening to your brain, if things don’t feel right, you feel like you’re having some trouble,” Earnhardt said. “It helped me a lot. There was a lot of good information I learned throughout that whole process. That impact test was a good standard for measuring. There’s no way to diagnose concussion, but this is a good standard for being able to measure one.”
Keselowski has no way of calculating his chances of repeating as champion. He switched from Dodge to Ford during the offseason, has a new teammate (Logano) and has more than 40 others gunning for him.
Nonetheless, he seemed unfazed by the precarious position and whatever pressure that might come with defending the title. He even bragged about his choice of shoes at media day.
“There is nothing wrong with a little style is there?” Keselowski said. “Everyone likes a little style. I feel like I have a little style. I am wearing white shoes. Who else wears white shoes?”
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