Dr. Diandra: Brad Keselowski driving RFK Racing revival
Brad Keselowski surprised many when he didn’t re-sign with Team Penske in 2021. Penske was his home since 2010, and the team who helped him to a Cup Series championship in 2012. But Jack Roush offered Keselowski something Roger Penske couldn’t — ownership stake in the team.
Keselowski knew an RFK Racing revival would be an challenge, but also that he was prepared for it.
“I’ve been studying my whole life for this moment, and I’m ready for the test,” Keselowski said during the announcement of the new partnership.
A historic team with historic ups and downs
Roush Racing entered Cup competition in 1988. It didn’t win that first year, but the company collected at least one checkered flag every year from 1989-2014 — except for 1996.
Roush was one of the first owners (along with Rick Hendrick) to appreciate the advantages of multi-car teams. By 2003, Roush Racing fielded five full-time teams. In 2005, all five Roush cars made the playoffs, accumulating 15 wins between them. Their dominance prompted NASCAR to limit teams to four cars. That limit remains today.
Roush sold half the team to Fenway Sports Group in 2007. The renamed Roush Fenway Racing team, however, never reached the highs of 2005 as the graph below shows.
The 2015 season was Jack Roush’s first winless season since 1996. By the time Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won two races in 2017, RFR was down to two cars. The company had four consecutive winless seasons before Keselowski came on board.
Keselowski is a perfect choice to drive the RFK revival. After all, how many other NASCAR drivers run a 3D-printing business? Or worry about having enough properly educated workers for 21st century manufacturing jobs?
“I feel like I’m buying into a stock that is about to go up,” Keselowski said.
The new RFK Racing team started off strong at Daytona, with Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher each winning their Duels. During that week, NASCAR confiscated wheels from both drivers’ cars. Despite concerns about the team’s modifications, NASCAR ultimately levied no penalty. But after the fifth race of the year at Atlanta, NASCAR docked Keselowski 100 points for modifying single-source parts. Keselowski needed to win to make the playoffs.
It wasn’t Keselowski, but Buescher who won the first race under the new name. Unfortunately, Buescher’s Bristol win came too late to make the playoffs.
Keselowski finished 2022 ranked 24th, the worst finish since his first full-time season in 2010 when he finished 25th.
In the table below, I compare Keselowski’s finishes for his last two years at Team Penske to his finishes with RFK Racing in 2022 and the first 15 races of 2023.
Keselowski’s lack of wins since switching teams is the most obvious difference; however, the falloff in top-five and top-10 finishes is even more significant. Keselowski was not only not winning races, he often wasn’t even in contention. In 2020, Keselowski finished 91.7% of all races on the lead lap. In his first year with RFK, that metric dropped to 61.1%.
On the positive side, his numbers this year look far better than his 2022 statistics. Keselowski finishes on the lead lap 86.7% of the time and already has as many top-10 finishes in 15 races as he had in all 36 races last year.
Keselowski’s top-five finish rate improved from 2.8% in 2022 to 20.0% this year. That’s still off his 2021 top-five-finish rate of 36.1%, but it’s a step forward.
I summarize the last four years of some of Keselowski’s loop data metrics in the table below.
In 2022, Keselowski was down between six to seven-and-a-half points in starting, finishing and average running positions relative to 2021. This year, he’s improved so that the difference is only in the 2.6 to 3.6-position range.
Two keys for continued improvement
Ford is playing catch-up this year, having won only two of 15 points-paying races. Ryan Blaney, who won one of those two races, has the highest average finishing position (11.3) among drivers with at least eight starts. Keselowski is 14th overall with a 15.7 average finishing position, and fourth best among Ford drivers. Buescher is finishing an average of 1.2 positions better than his teammate.
Kevin Harvick is the top-ranked Ford driver in average running position, coming in sixth overall. Keselowski is 13th overall in average running position and the fourth-best among the Ford drivers.
Average green-flag speed rank is the average of a driver’s rank in green-flag speed over all the races for which he was ranked. Harvick is the fastest Ford as measured by this metric, ranking eighth among all drivers who have completed at least eight races. Keselowski is the fifth-fastest Ford, but the 20th-ranked driver in average green-flag speed rank.
The other issue, however, is particular to Keselowski: He is involved in a lot of accidents. That’s not new with Keselowski’s move to RFK Racing. Since 2016, Keselowski has been involved in at least eight caution-causing incidents every year.
What may be new is that he has a harder time recovering from non-race-ending incidents now than he did at Penske.
In 2021, Keselowski was involved in 12 caution-causing accidents. Last year, it was 10 (nine accidents and a spin). He’s already been involved in 12 incidents this year, the most of any full-time driver.
Neither accidents nor Keselowski’s attitude toward them changed with his transition from Team Penske to RFK Racing.
Except now he’s the one paying for those wrecked cars.