TORONTO — DJ Kennington always comes prepared to drive, whether it's racing at 300 kilometres per hour at the Daytona 500 or clearing snow off Ontario's highways.
Kennington, who in February became the first Canadian to qualify for Daytona in 29 years, will compete in the NASCAR Pinty's Series' Grand Prix of Toronto on the streets around Exhibition Place as part of this weekend's Honda Indy Toronto.
The 39-year-old from St. Thomas, Ont, who balances racing with his work for the Township of Southwold roads department, wound up 36th out of 40 drivers in Daytona after getting caught up in a pileup. But the chance to compete on NASCAR's biggest stage is an experience that still resonates.
"When I got back from Daytona, the bosses, they gave me a plaque that said I was the fastest snowplow driver in Ontario," Kennington said.
Kennington was the first Canadian since Trevor Boys in 1988 to compete in the marquee NASCAR event when he claimed one of two open slots in the race. The qualifying duel is something that Kennington will never forget, and he said he still gets goosebumps when the topic gets brought up.
"Other than my kids being born, it was probably the biggest moment in my life," Kennington said. "I can get choked up right now talking about it. People don't understand what that means to me and what it meant to my family. It's the Daytona 500, it's the crown jewel of stock car racing.
"I don't think I'm better than anybody else as far as driving, anything like that. I just think I'm a very fortunate person to have had that opportunity."
The outpouring of support from Canadians was immediate as Kennington received over 300 text messages that evening. Kennington's race day was cut short, however, after a pile up involving NASCAR legend Jimmie Johnson on Lap 127.
"We didn't want it to end the way it did. We were running really well, I mean that car was fast," Kennington said. "We were up to 14th when the crash happened, running with the big dogs and that was just an unbelievable feeling."
Kennington was four-years-old when his father — Canadian Motorsports Hall of Famer Doug Kennington — put him in a go-kart and he became hooked from there. He started racing full-time at 16 and his dad has been with him every step of the way.
"He's not only my best friend, he's my hero," Kennington said. "He's been my life partner, right by my side in everything I've done. We've worked together our whole lives.
"He's 77-years-old now and still in the shop at 5:30 in the morning and still out there at seven o'clock at night helping us."
Reaching NASCAR's peak has been a full team effort for the Kennington family. While his dad helps get the No. 17 car ready, his mom looks after his two kids — one four year old and the other 19 months old — while he and his wife go to work at 6:30 in the morning.
Kennington says that he and his wife try to have supper together as a family before he gets back to work.
"A lot of times I'll get the kids to bed with my wife and then climb in bed with her and we'll be watching a little TV program," he said. "And I'll wait till she falls asleep and then I'll go right back out to the shop again."
It's been a solid season so far for Kennington, who's a two-time NASCAR Pinty's Series champion. He enters Saturday's race seventh in the driver standings including two top-five finishes in four starts.
Kennington returned to Daytona for the Coke Zero 400 on July 1 but didn't finish the race after engine problems. He said he has three more races planned for NASCAR's top series later this year with Premium Motorsports, including a start at Talladega.
"It's tough, it's a big grind, but once you get in that thing and strapped in, it's heaven," Kennington said.
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Ryan McKenna, The Canadian Press