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Practice makes purpose: Keselowski’s message sets early tone at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Brad Keselowski has had enough. As one of stock-car racing’s very best at the superspeedway brand of racing, he comes thoroughly qualified to take exception to the tactics of other drivers.

And so it happened that the tipping point arrived on an otherwise sleepy Thursday, before Sunday’s summer classic, the Coke Zero Sugar 400 (1 p.m. ET, NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). William Byron’s blocking technique irked Keselowski during a charged-up final practice, but that moment wasn’t his only trigger. It was the culmination of a series of devil-may-care chop-blocks from others, and crashes that had placed his Team Penske No. 2 Ford on the wrecker’s hook for four of the last five races at Daytona International Speedway.

RELATED: Keselowski, Byron tangle

So Keselowski pushed back and stayed on the gas Thursday when Byron’s No. 24 changed lanes in front of him, all in the name of making a point at 200-plus mph.

“I’ve been put in positions these last few plate races — not just by William but a handful of other people — where I’ve had to make a decision to risk myself on being loaded up on the trailer and watching the end of the race or drive through the guy in front of me,” Keselowski said after an hour-long cooling-off period in the No. 2 team’s hauler. “I’ve been too conservative and ended up watching too many of these plate races from the back of the trailer, and that is not the responsible thing to do for my team.

“I’m not going to do that anymore. I’ve made that commitment. And if you’re gonna make that commitment, you make that commitment today and make that commitment in the race as well.”

Keselowski insisted Thursday’s contact was “nothing personal” toward Byron, the 21-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver making just his fourth Daytona start this weekend. But Byron figured into the drama from last year’s 400-miler at nearly the same point on the 2.5-mile track.

In the 2018 version, Byron moved to block a substantial swell of momentum from Keselowski and Ford partner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to keep his lead. When Keselowski’s eased off the throttle to avoid Byron’s maneuver, Stenhouse’s push became too great. Keselowski’s No. 2 slid into the path of the oncoming pack, and 25 more cars crashed in its wake.

MORE: Keselowski exits in 2018 Daytona crash

Keselowski took the blame for that accident, but vowed no more. “I’m just not wrecking enough people,” Keselowski said last July after emerging from the infield care center unhurt. “I need to wreck more people so they’ll stop throwing bad blocks.”

Thursday, he kept his word.

“There’s two types of blocking. There’s blocking that makes someone lift and there’s blocking that doesn’t,” Keselowski said. “When you know the difference, you can be successful at these races. …

“If you’re forcing someone to lift, that means they’re going to get run over from behind. And that means I’m sitting on the trailer. I’m tired of sitting on the trailer. I’m not watching the end of these races.”

Keselowski has some history with not lifting. He delivered his first major-league win by keeping the gas pedal mashed and not budging when Carl Edwards tried to force him below the out-of-bounds line at Talladega Superspeedway in 2009. Edwards pirouetted toward the retaining fence, and Keselowski sailed unimpeded to the checkered flag.

RELATED: See every one of Keselowski’s wins

For Keselowski, those rules of engagement are back. Time will tell if the message sent with Thursday’s purpose pitch was received.

“You’ve got to put a line in the sand, and that’s not fun to do, but it’s important to do if you’re going to win these races,” Keselowski said. “I plan on winning these races for my team, they deserve that.”