DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin won the Can-Am Duel races on Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway. But for Canadian racing fans, the big story was DJ Kennington. The St. Thomas, ON racer – a two-time champion on Canada’s NASCAR Pinty’s Series – qualified for Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Kennington finished 15th in the second Duel to secure his starting spot in The Great American Race. After the event, Kennington chatted with the media, describing his outing and his feelings.
THE MODERATOR: I want to introduce DJ Kennington, driver of the No. 96 Lordco Castrol Toyota. Also I think maybe the happiest man in Daytona Beach right now after racing your way into The Great American Race. Can you describe the feeling coming here to Daytona and making the Daytona 500?
DJ KENNINGTON: No, I really can’t. Clint said it’s a dream come true for him. It’s everything he dreamed of. Well, I’m not with Stewart Haas, but I’m with a small team of Gaunt Brothers Racing that put a car together; TRD helped us. We went into the wind tunnel and actually tested at Talladega. With Lordco and Castrol behind me, Castrol has been my sponsor for 25 years now. Very fortunate to have them behind me.
I can’t explain it really. Coming off of four, I wasn’t in the race. When we crossed the line, I was, so just an unbelievable feeling for us. The small race team, like I say, with TRD helping us, all the information we gained, so on, it definitely helped us. I wish we could have practiced a little bit this morning. Never being in one of these cars, never drafting out here before, it was a pretty big deal for me, a lot of learning, I tell you. At the end we made it in. That’s huge for us. The hard part is over. We’re going to have some fun now.
Q. DJ, I was wondering if you could talk about how long it took to put this program together. Can you talk about Robby Benetton’s involvement with the team.
DJ KENNINGTON: Absolutely. Robby and Marty have teamed up to put together a team that want to run all four restrictor plate races and possibly a couple road courses maybe. It was weird how it all started. I drove for Premium Motorsports in Phoenix last year. Got talking with Marty about an opportunity to run the 500 with Premium. I was actually talking to Triad about getting some engines to run Daytona.
It all kind of ended up falling together with Marty and myself making a deal to drive his own car. Lordco and Castrol came onboard, my sponsors from Canada, to help out. We put it together I would say within the last month.
A lot of my guys from my race team up in the Pinty’s Series came down. We’ve been working 18, 20 hours a day at Robby Benton’s shop to put this car together ourselves.
They actually flew back on Sunday. Four of them worked 24 hours to have the backup car here in case we needed. Just been a group effort. Robby Benton has helped Marty out with the shop. Amazing equipment to work with, pull downs, everything. A lot of work in a short period of time. It probably all came together in the last four weeks.
Q. Is Robby serving as crew chief?
DJ KENNINGTON: Actually, no. Robby is spotting. He came on the radio on the back straightaway. He says, You got to get in front of the 7. Do what you got to do. I knew what I had to do. I didn’t know how to get there.
Really lucky off of four. I picked the right line. I didn’t think the middle would work. The only spot I had to go was the middle. We shot up the middle. I think we got ahead of Elliott by half a car length. That’s huge for this race team. Marty has put a lot into it with TRD, done a lot of hard work. I’m proud to be able to drive this thing. Heck, to be in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, that’s a dream for me. From St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada. There’s only been eight of us Canadians that have made the 500, so that’s huge for us.
Q. We had it figured differently apparently. We thought when Timmy Hill went out, it put you and Elliott in the show no matter what. Brendan didn’t need the fast qualifier clause.
DJ KENNINGTON: 83 made it in from the first race. Brendan was locked in. If we didn’t beat the 7 car, Reed Sorenson would have been in on time. The last chance we had was to beat the 7 car. We knew exactly what we had to do. I just didn’t know how to get there. Thankfully we got there.
Q. Castrol has been on your car forever. Can you explain how important it is to have that kind of a relationship.
DJ KENNINGTON: I don’t know how many people in motorsport right now can say they’ve had the same sponsor for 25 years. Very fortunate. They’re like family to me. This deal all came together when I was trying to put some money together to come to Daytona. Quick story. I went to the Castrol Christmas party. I wasn’t even going to go because I wasn’t feeling the best. My wife actually told me, Here are a couple Advil. Get your butt to the party. Go see your friends.
I went to the party, started talking to people there. They were really excited about how we did at Phoenix, racing with Premium Motorsports. Congratulated me. I said, Hey, I’m working on the next chapter now. I am trying to get to the Daytona 500. The owner of Wakefield, which is Castrol in Canada, he stuck his hand out right there and said, I got your back for that. Make it happen.
I never even asked him for it. Just tells you what kind of sponsor they are for me. Unbelievable what they’ve done for me my whole racing career. Without what they’ve done for me, I wouldn’t even be here today. I can’t explain to you how important they are to me.
THE MODERATOR: DJ, congratulations on making the Daytona 500. Good luck on Sunday.
DJ KENNINGTON: Thanks. We appreciate it. The hard part is done, now we can have some fun.