Sporting the widest smile of anyone at Speedweeks, Brian Keselowski emerged from an unsponsored, five-year-old No. 92 Dodge having qualified for his first Sprint Cup race. But this wasn't just any racing debut; Daytona's second qualifying Duel created the ultimate underdog story for a 29-year-old rookie whose life from this moment is forever altered. NASCAR's Super Bowl guaranteed a minimum $250,000 payout for a team that on Wednesday struggled to find $2.50 in their wallets to buy a sandwich, an owner/driver with no Cup superspeedway experience outclassing drivers like Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, and Greg Biffle to start 12th.
That achievement in itself would be plenty of reason to celebrate. But perhaps the biggest reward of all is one you can't quantify on the track, a squabbling sibling relationship off it whose road to repair may have started during those final few laps on Thursday. Their story leads off a list of winners and losers from the Daytona 150-mile qualifiers, setting the field for a Great American Race that may have suddenly rediscovered its roots when least expected.
Four years later, this sibling rivalry now stood at a crossroads. Brad's career skyrocketed, and he now drives the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge for powerhouse Penske Racing. Already a Cup winner at Talladega, he's secured a dozen Busch/Nationwide victories, a championship in 2010 and has nearly $13 million in career winnings. Brother Brian? He's broke, that missed opportunity leaving him on the owner/driver, blue-collar side of the fence where often times there's not enough money to do more than qualify, drive a few laps, and park his car to pay the bills.
"There's always a little bit of jealousy," said Brian on Thursday. "I feel like if roles could have been reversed, there's a possibility I could be in the same position he's in now. I would have liked the chance."
But there's a difference between jealousy and bitterness. Brian never had any of the latter, never changing his happy-go-lucky, good-natured attitude. It's a stark contrast from how Brad has developed, a good man but with a sarcastic wit and a strong sense of self-confidence that often rubs people the wrong way -- including his own family.
"How has Brad changed? He hasn't changed at all. He's always been a snotty little kid," said Keselowski to laughter in Daytona's media center. "He knows I love him ... it's just part of it."
But now, despite all the outward bravado, younger brother Brad may have finally shown his softer side, pulling the ultimate selfless act of literally pushing his brother into this year's Daytona 500. After a spin left Brad with bad track position, restarting back in the pack with 17 to go, he started looking for a drafting partner, looked over and saw a brother who just yesterday was 18 miles an hour slower than the field in practice. But with these two-car drafts, the car in back can work wonders, acting as a second motor to push an ailing one to the front in virtually any circumstance. What would younger brother do?
"I said, 'Heck, I've got a great guy to work with back here after the spin and at least I know that he's not going to dump me," explained Brad. "The next thing you know we're running fourth, fifth, and then second. [Brian and Brad wound up sixth and eighth, respectively]. It's a great feeling."
Brian's low-budget team now at least is guaranteed the cash to make it to Phoenix next week. And after that? He'll take it day by day, just like a newly-rebuilt friendship with the brother -- Brian even moved into Brad's town house on Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s property -- that didn't leave him behind this time.
"I'm not sure if we dreamed about it," said Brad of racing in the Daytona 500 together. "But I did dream about the day that we didn't beat each other up."
I think they're both past that now.
But in one split second, a shattering of parts and pieces changed everything. Michael McDowell's blown engine enabled Yeley to get his lap back. Pitting for fuel and four fresh tires, the No. 46 timed the restart perfectly, blew by the NEMCO Motorsports duo and held on to steal Conway's spot in the 500 from under their noses.
"It's been a long road back," said Yeley, who just 16 months ago suffered a serious neck injury at Lakeside Speedway, a dirt track disaster that once threatened to permanently derail his racing career. "In this sport, if you're not in clear view, you can easily get forgotten. That's what I started to feel like ... running well, I hope, is opening eyes and showing that I still have the ability."
Making this race will do a lot to keep those eyes on him.
"I feel like I don't know anything about the draft," he said. "You have to react in thousandths of a second, split-second decisions. You have to have a good drafting partner [who will stick with you]."
"It's almost like you're playing Texas Hold 'Em, you see everybody get their deck of cards and you're looking around to see who is betting with who, who is going to hang around and wait to see the flop."
It's a humble statement from a future Hall of Famer who's often classically underestimated. Before Saturday, the odds were against Busch making any kind of noise at Daytona; after all, he hadn't won a single restrictor plate race in 10 years. But now, he stands alongside Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. as the drivers with the best chance to win this year's 500.
"Once I saw I didn't have the opportunity, I figured well, we'll take a good starting spot," he said. "This isn't Sunday. This is just Thursday and we'll see what happens."
But Harvick's fourth-place finish paled in comparison to a 1-2 Childress punch in the second Duel. Jeff Burton nipped Clint Bowyer to the line, the duo settling the race among themselves while combining to lead 27 of 60 laps. For Burton, it was his first win of any kind since 2008 while giving hope his 0-for-Daytona 500 streak will come to an end at 17.
"There's the 500, a championship, the two biggest things on my list I want to get done," he said. "Hopefully, we're just one step closer to them."
"We've gotta think about, every second up to the 500, how to make this car go longer without swapping," said Junior on the radio while Steve Letarte, his crew chief was baffled as to how long Harvick and the RCR cars could draft behind someone in comparison. To add insult to injury, Jeff Gordon had the best Hendrick car, working perfectly with young Trevor Bayne in Duel No. 2 until the rookie made a costly mistake, got out of shape out of turn 4 and wrecked them both coming to the checkered flag. As of now, the No. 24 will fix their primary car -- keeping them in the second spot for the 500 -- but HMS has plenty of homework to do between now and Sunday.
"I [still] think we're gonna be good," said Edwards. "I think for the 500 it's gonna be an all-day, whose car can last longest, whose engine is the strongest and which drivers can work together the best. I think that's gonna win it and I feel like we've got a good enough team to do that."
"It's a tough one to swallow," said Logano. "I'm sure our other car will be just as good. Our shootout didn't go so well [he wrecked on Saturday night] and neither did this race. Maybe the third time is the charm."
Perhaps, as it is the youngster's third year on the circuit. But with an ugly track record at Daytona -- he has yet to run higher than 19th in four career starts -- don't expect much.
"I've never experienced anything like this," said Bill Elliott, who should know better than anyone -- the two-time Daytona 500 winner holds the alltime track record of 212+ MPH from 1987, the year before restrictor plates came to pass. "When you get two really good cars that can work well together, they're going to be hard to beat [on their own]."
Not everyone is convinced what we saw on Thursday will translate over to the 500.
"We're going to have 400 miles of some stuff happening, and 100 miles of more stuff happening than you can keep up with," said Burton. "We're going to have six or seven cautions in the last 100 miles, a short race 'till the end and the same Daytona 500 we've had in the last six or seven."
"It's going to be different getting up to that point ... but when somebody has a chance to take the Daytona 500 trophy home, you do things that you weren't going to do 100 laps before that. It's the same thing every time we come down here."