Ever since he was four years old sitting on the couch watching the Daytona 500 with his dad, D.J. Kennington wished he was one of the drivers in the field for the Great American Race. Earlier this year, Kennington was able to make that happen.
“Lifelong dream accomplished,” he told POPULAR SPEED. “I can honestly tell you sitting in the seat is much more fun.”
Ultimately, the race didn’t go as he planned with getting caught up in one of the big wrecks, but it was an experience he’s going to remember forever.
“We made a dream come true,” he said. “It didn’t end how I wanted, but that’s restrictor plate racing. There’s nothing that you can do. You always think that you can miss things, but at 200mph it’s hard to miss a parked car. Not the way we wanted to finish. But it’s a big deal to make the race as a small team, and we ran competitively, and hopefully there’s more to come soon.”
It’s also opened the door for possibly running more races this season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series for Gaunt Brothers Racing.
“We’re working on it with getting more sponsorship opportunities, but as of right now, I will say yes,” he said. “Hopefully we have some news coming soon.”
Kennington almost didn’t get to start the Daytona 500, only making it in after he beat Elliott Sadler by a bumper in the Budweiser Duel on Thursday night. Going into the qualifier, he didn’t think he had to worry about Sadler in the event, based on the conversation they had before the race.
“Apparently, Elliott was just supposed to ride around the back, and he was happy doing that as they didn’t have a spare car,” Kennington said. “So they were going to ride around the back, and we even rode in the pickup truck together, and he told me that I didn’t have to beat him. I said, ‘Good, I just have to beat Timmy Hill.’”
Flash forward to the race, and Timmy Hill, unfortunately, had a motor problem, sending him to the garage – which caused Kennington to think that they were set to qualify. However, those thoughts immediately disappeared when he saw Sadler’s No. 7 go by him on the straightaway.
“I’m like, ‘What is he doing?’ because that means we’re done, not in the race,” Kennington said. “My spotter told me to do what I had to do to get in front of the seven as I was trying to get it through my head as to why the seven would pass me. It came out later on that there was a little deal with the 55 (Reed Sorenson) car made, and the 55 offered a lot of money for them to beat us to make the race. So if they would’ve beat us, we would’ve been out.”
Kennington was able to make the move necessary, though, as he made the three-wide move up the middle to pass Sadler and qualify for the event.
“I didn’t have time to think about it,” he said. “I just got lucky that the middle opened up, and I got a good draft off Ty Dillon and made the move up the center. It was either going to work, or we were going to get wrecked. That was the choice that I had. I wasn’t going to lift, and there’s a famous line that Mark Dilley likes to use – if the rad fits, the rest will follow. That’s what I was going with.”
Beyond plans in NASCAR’s premiere division, there’s also a possibility of seeing him back at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park in the truck race for the second straight year. He mentions “there are irons in the fire,” but the “main goal will be focused on Gaunt Brothers Racing and our own stuff in the Pinty’s Series.”
Kennington is set to return to the NASCAR Pinty’s Series once again to partake in the full schedule, hoping to walk away as the series champion.
“I think it’ll be a great season for us,” he said. “We will get back into the winner’s circle – it’s not an if, it’s a when. I’m looking forward to every race. I think we’ll have a great season this year and hopefully walk away with the championship.”
Despite being a two-time champion, he hasn’t won a title since 2012, something that’s weighed on his mind when him saying it’s “championship or bust” the past couple years. However, the bigger goal this year for Kennington to get back to victory lane as he hasn’t won a race since August 2013.
“The competition level in this series has just gotten so steep,” he said. “It’s tough to win. You have to have everything going your way to win one of these races. All the drivers are so good; all the owners are so good – they’re tough to beat. I just want to get back to the winner’s circle this year, and I think if we do that then the championship will take care of itself.”
He came close last year at St. Eustache, running up front and leading 90 laps till he was passed late by Cayden Lapcevich, and finished second.
“We led most of the night and had the car to win the race and were within two car lengths of lapping Cayden at one point, and we put on tires because it looked like it was going to rain,” he said. “If we didn’t put on tires, it probably would’ve rained. You can’t second guess your decision. That’s all part of racing. You can’t get upset, you can’t get frustrated, and that’s it. If we would’ve made the right call, we would’ve looked like a hero. That’s just part of racing.”
The drive to win is certainly without question there as Kennington says he will give someone the bump-and-run on the last lap if necessary.
“I don’t like not winning. It’s not fun,” he said. “All of us up here want to win. I think if you lose that drive to win and that desire to be the best, it’s time to hang it up. We’ve worked hard, and everybody knows it’s hard to win these things. If it comes down to banging fenders, we’re going to have to.”
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