It won’t be his first run at Daytona International Speedway, but when the flag drops on the afternoon of Feb. 26, D.J. Kennington aims to be on the starting grid for the grand-daddy of stock car races – the Daytona 500.
It’s been a dream of the St. Thomas racer since he was five years old and the only obstacle now is the qualifying run Feb. 19.
“Hopefully we can get ourselves locked in for Sunday, that’s the main goal,” stressed Kennington. “There are a lot of good cars that are not locked in. There are 35 cars locked in now and there are only five spots left. If you have a really good car and a good engine and you can miss the wrecks, you can hopefully make the race.”
For Kennington, a shot at the big one comes less than three months after another dream came to fruition on the oval at Phoenix International Raceway in Phoenix, Arizona – his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut.
“It’s hard to believe I’m 38 years old and a rookie,” laughed Kennington prior to the race. “But I guess I am this weekend when it comes to that series. You’re racing against the best in the world. My dad and I have worked so hard for so long and I’ve always wanted to run a Sprint Cup Series race.”
He powered the Northern Provincial Pipelines/Clark Construction Chevrolet to a 35th place finish and afterward grinned, “I’m a very, very fortunate man. My dream came true today. It’s still is kind of surreal at this point.”
“Phoenix was the race of a lifetime, Daytona is the grand-daddy, it’s the biggest stock car race in the world, I guess. And to have an opportunity at it is absolutely huge for me and my family. My dad has worked so hard with all my races and trying to make things happen for me. For this to come together is really, really cool.”
At Daytona, Kennington will be behind the wheel of the blue and white #96 Toyota of Gaunt Brothers Racing.
“I’ve raced there four times already in the Infinity Series, but the last time was 2009 so it’s been awhile,” notes Kennington, NASCAR Canadian Tire Series champion in 2010 and again in 2012.
“It’s a huge track, but when you’re out there it doesn’t seem so huge. When you’re running three wide at 190 miles an hour, things happen in a hurry. You run flat-footed all the time, all the way around. You never come off the gas.”
The road to Daytona offered up a few twists and turns for Kennington.
“I was working with the team I drove for in Phoenix, they were trying to put a deal together to run in Daytona. They ended up getting a deal with Michael Waltrip to drive their car and they were going to take a second car and the deal was they wanted me to drive the second car. They found a second car which was a Toyota.
“They needed to find an engine package for the Toyota and I know Marty Gaunt really well at Triad Technologies (a Toyota engine-building company in North Carolina), which is the guy I’m running for now. I called him looking for an engine, thinking if we’ve got a good engine and they’ve got a good car, we can make this all happen.”
Well happen it did, but not as originally intended.
“Marty and I ended up talking and he said I’ve got something coming down the line for you real shortly. And it just kinda all fell into place. I called Marty looking to get an engine from him and next thing you know I’m driving his car and we have Lordco and Castrol as sponsors and away we go.”
Driving for Gaunt adds an additional layer of Canadian content.
“Marty is a Canadian owner and Canadian sponsor and now you’ve got a Canadian driver,” said Kennington, who began racing competitively at age 16.
Serious prepping for the race began last month with a seat-shopping trip to North Carolina.
“I had to buy a seat, I want the best safety stuff I can get. It’s just astronomical amounts of money. A used seat cost me $9,000. Brand new they’re $15,000.”
Daytona may be the fulfillment of a boyhood dream for Kennington, but it is as much a tribute to his dad, Doug Kennington, no stranger to drag strips and oval tracks.
The elder Kennington is a member of the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame.
“My dad is the hardest working man I’ve met in my life and it’s hard to get a reaction out of him. But I know inside he’s pretty excited. I haven’t talked him into going yet. He still says he’s staying home to watch it on TV. He says he’ll just be in the way there. He says he’ll watch it on TV and see more of it. I think if I make the race he’ll be more nervous than me.
“My wife and kids are just so excited. She was the first one jumping up and down when I told her it was a done deal. My mom and dad, my sisters, everyone has supported me in this thing since I was five years old.”
There’s one small matter that would have made the Daytona 500 an even sweeter drive for Kennington.
“I wanted #28 but that is sacred because of Davey Allison. He was my hero growing up. Him and Cale Yarborough. They were both #28. I idolized Davey Allison, it’s sad he passed away so young. Those guys made the sport what it is today. I can’t believe they all survived what they did with how far safety has come today. They were in there with a lap belt and a bench seat. It’s just crazy. And glass windshields.
“That’s why my go-cart number was 28. My son’s four (and born on Nov. 28, no less) and he’s starting to race this summer. I got him a micro-sprint and he’s #28. That’s the number I wanted when I started racing in CASCAR but the number was taken. I took #17 because it was one less than two and one less than eight.”
The chance to lock in a spot on Feb. 19 is not lost on Kennington, voted the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series Most Popular Driver in 2008.
“To get this opportunity, I’m one lucky guy for sure.”
Postscript: Kennington was due to head to Talladega Super Speedway on Thursday (Feb. 9) for testing of the #96 Lordco/Castrol Toyota.