"I don't like to be a favorite," Kurt Busch said on Thursday. "I like to be an underdog." Well, after winning the Bud Shootout and the first Gatorade Duel qualifying race, Busch is anything but an underdog. Sunday's Daytona 500 is full of them, though. Don't have a rooting interest in the race? The following three drivers are true underdogs deserving of your cheers.
1. Brian Keselowski. He had been working on his car since right after Thanksgiving, but the week before Keselowski was supposed to take it to Daytona Beach to attempt to qualify for the biggest race of his career, things weren't looking up. The two mechanics who were working with him quit to work for another team because he couldn't afford to pay them. It was just Keselowksi and his dad, Bob, left to prepare the car for qualifying. "We thought, 'How are we going to do this?," Keselowski said on Friday, standing inside his rented hauler. "The car didn't have any suspension. We didn't have a motor. We didn't have a seat in the car. We couldn't even afford all that stuff."
Keselowski estimates he was about $30,000 short at that point, having already raised around $12,000 in sponsorship. Over the next several days the 29-year-old driver, who has averaged a 30th place finish over 60 Nationwide Series races, worked out several smaller deals for $1,000 or $2,000 and even got $5,000 from his little brother, Brad, who drives full-time for Penske Racing. Brad says he also bought his big brother's team an owner's license, which costs close to $3,000. Keselowksi scraped together enough to make it to Daytona (around $14,000 more), knowing he would earn at least $27,000, the prize money for the last-place finisher in each of the two Gatorade Duel races.
With a five-year-old car body and a several-year-old engine, he didn't have a fast race car during practice or the Duel. "To be the slowest guy all week, it was really kind of embarrassing," admits Keselowski. But during the race he received some help from Brad, who found himself near the back of the pack in the second Duel race on Thursday and was able to push his big brother's car using the two-car draft that is en vogue at Daytona this year. "All of a sudden, we passed a few guys and we passed some more," says Keselowski. "Then we're going to the front and then it was, Oh my God we might win this thing!" Keselowski finished fifth and Brad seventh, which was enough to vault the elder brother into the 43-car field for the Daytona 500. "I got so many congratulations here," says Keselowski, who also received offers of everything from tires to a newer engine to a fresh paint scheme. "When something like this happens, it brings out the best in everyone."
He'll also enter the Daytona 500 with a new sponsor in Discount Tire, which signed the elder Keselowski on Saturday.
2. Regan Smith. North Carolina is home to all the Sprint Car teams except for one: Smith's. He's the lone driver for Furniture Row Racing, which is headquartered about 1,600 miles away in Denver. Smith owns a house in Charlotte, and his fiancee, Megan, is a middle schoolteacher there, but he has been looking at condos, apartments and houses in Colorado in order to spend more time at the race shop with his team members. "If we're talking about how the race went the past weekend and something I was fighting or maybe something that was good that I was happy about," he says, "you can't always relay that emotion over the phone."
The fourth-year driver has yet to finish in the top 10 in a Cup race but he's got something that will benefit him on Sunday: speed. "We have a fast race-car," says Smith. "After we got into the drafting stuff, our car kind of went up another notch. With cars around it, it really came to life."
During the first Duel on Thursday, Smith was able to shove Busch to the front of the field and finished second behind the Penske driver. The drafting partnership was the result of a positive practice for the Bud Shootout last week. "Kurt was actually teaching me the ropes about how to do the drafting," says Smith of that practice. "He very easily could have pulled into the garage and said, 'Man, he doesn't have it yet,' after the first time we switched [positions] and given up and said, I'm going to work with other guys.' But he kept working with me and teaching me and he stayed out there for 20 laps that he didn't have to."
Smith had three top 15 finishes over the last seven races of 2010. With a fast car at Daytona, his 2011 could be off to a good start.
3. J.J. Yeley. Yeley's path to this year's Daytona 500 has been anything but direct. The 34-year-old driver, who qualified for the race by finishing 17th in the first Duel, hasn't run full-time in Cup since 2008. In August '09, while he was driving a sprint car at Lakeside Speedway in Kansas, he flipped and barrel-rolled half-a-dozen times before hitting the retaining fence. He fractured three vertebrae and had surgery in the following months to fuse two of them together, spending a total of eight months away from the track. "It was a huge setback because I was out of the eye of NASCAR," says Yeley. "I didn't really even want to come to the racetrack with a neck brace on because then all of a sudden people look at you and they almost are scared to deal with you."
Yeley had made 95 Sprint Car starts before '09 but didn't have a ride the year of the accident. Last year, he made 17 starts for Whitney Motorsports before being replaced, but he's back to driving full-time for the team. Says Yeley, "Sitting around watching it and not being able to go to the racetrack really got me super enthused about getting back to where you live it, breathe, it -- that's your life."