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Friday 5: Brad Keselowski pushing RFK Racing toward excellence

Brad Keselowski warned RFK Racing before this year, his first with the team as a driver/owner, what might come.

“I’m probably going to wreck out of a number of races this year,” Keselowski said he told his team and the company. “It’s going to be for good reason. Every time, I’m going to push the car as hard as I can push it and probably overstep it. Something is going to happen and then we’re going to come back and we’re going to make it better.

“I understand that that’s part of the role that I have. As long as those failures are coming from a push and not a silly mistake, I’m OK with that, whether it’s me or anyone else in the company. We’ve got to push really hard if we’re going to get where we want to get. We’ve got room to go.”

A quarter of the way through the season, Keselowski sees progress. He’s not wrecked out of any of the first nine races and ranks fourth in the series in laps run, having completed all but four laps this season.

While Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher each won their qualifying events at Daytona in February, RFK Racing seeks its first Cup win since 2017 when it was known as Roush Fenway Racing. Both victories that season came on a superspeedway — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won at Daytona and Talladega. The last time the organization won on any other type of track was 2014 at Sonoma with Carl Edwards.

It’s that history Keselowski seeks to change. As he enters Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway (3 p.m. ET on Fox), it’s easy to view this as a must-win event for him.

Keselowski climbed into the top 30 in points and became playoff eligible after last weekend’s race at Bristol. That marked the first time since he and his team were hit with severe penalties, which included 100-point deductions for modifying a tail panel, that he was back in the top 30.

NASCAR Cup Series Bluegreen Vacations Duel #2 at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 17: Chris Buescher, driver of the #17 Fastenal Ford, celebrates with team owners Jack Roush (L) and Brad Keselowski, driver of the #6 Kohler Generators Ford, in the Ruoff Mortgage victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Bluegreen Vacations Duel #2 at Daytona at Daytona International Speedway on February 17, 2022 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Getty Images

Even with the uncertainty of speedway racing, Keselowski is viewed as one of the favorites. He is the winningest active driver with six Cup victories at Talladega.

With the way the team has run, the speedway style of racing at Talladega, Atlanta (July 10) and Daytona (Aug. 27) seems to provide the best chance for Keselowski and Buescher to win to reach the playoffs.

“I think there’s probably a little bit of truth to that, but honestly I’m looking at the next month and I’m really excited about the races we have,” Keselowski said. “I think we can win any one of them.

“We’ve got a lot of good stuff coming down the pipeline. We’re starting to figure some things out and find some of the missing puzzle pieces, so I’m not ready to say that we have to win on a plate track to advance to the playoffs.

“I feel like we’re starting to find our game at other tracks, too. We have lot more confidence in the cars, and the team is learning a lot. I’m not ready to concede that, but certainly I’m going to still try to win those races, Talladega, Daytona and Atlanta. We’ve got a great shot this weekend. If we’re anywhere close, I’m going to leave it all out on the line.”

Since the Daytona 500 — Keselowski finished ninth — the team has had two top-10 finishes. Both were by Buescher. He was 10th at Phoenix and seventh at Atlanta. Keselowski has four finishes between 11th and 15th in the last five races.

“There’s still a lot of opportunities on the table for us,” Buescher said. “Definitely look at (Talladega) as a good one, a lot of confidence coming off Daytona and the amount of speed and maneuverability we had in our race cars.”

The Daytona 500 saw Keselowski trigger two accidents pushing cars. Keselowski pushed rookie Harrison Burton toward the front late in the first stage when Burton’s car got sideways and went upside down. A push by Keselowski six laps from the scheduled distance turned Stenhouse as they ran near the front.

“I hate the fact that Daytona we were a part of two wrecks,” Keselowski said this week. “Honestly, it was time to go and my car could have took the same push that I gave those cars. … I was surprised in both instances that it didn’t work out better than it did, but I also know that the two drivers I had to crash with would have been mad with me if I didn’t push them.

“It’s easy to get out of the car after a wreck and say, ‘Man, you shouldn’t have pushed so hard.’ I can tell you how the conversation goes if you don’t push, they come to your bus after the race and go ‘Why the hell didn’t you push me? Could have won the race.’ That’s just part of it.

“It would be different if it was some kind of silly mistake where there were three cars in front and I was pushing them and, clearly, they didn’t want a push. When it’s a push for the lead or for the win in the Daytona 500, I think you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do there.”

While most of the focus is what happens on the track, what takes place at the shop often is as important.

That entails turning the organization back into one that was among the sport’s dominant operations.

“I keep remembering this is as much a challenge as it is an opportunity to leave my mark on not just the company but the sport,” Keselowski said. “I’m OK with that. I like the challenge, and I like what’s in front of me. I can tell you that the success we’ve had, although not as much as we would like to have had, it means all the world to me.”

2. Shift in balance of power?

One of the ideas with the Next Gen car, along with cutting future costs for owners, was that it would bring teams closer together, giving more organizations the opportunity to win races or have strong finishes.

A quarter of the way through the season, the same teams are the strongest.

Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske had eight wins in the first nine races last year. Those teams have combined to win seven races this year.

Hendrick, Gibbs and Penske combined for 58 top-10 finishes last year through the first nine races. Those teams have combined for 47 top-10 finishes this season. Much of the decline is related to Joe Gibbs Racing, which had 24 top 10s at this point last year compared to 15 this year.

Most organizations have seen no more than a difference of three in the number of top 10s from this year to last year through nine races.

The exceptions are:

  • Joe Gibbs Racing: Nine fewer top 10s this year from last year
  • Trackhouse Racing: Team has eight top 10s this year after having one at this time last year
  • 23XI Racing: Team has five top 10s (four by Kurt Busch, who joined the team this year) compared to zero at this time last year.

While the balance of power still remains about the same as last year, what does it do for smaller teams that were supposed to have a better chance?
Ty Dillon, who scored his first top-10 finish of the season for Petty GMS Motorsports last week at Bristol, says things are different for smaller teams.

“Winning teams win races, and no matter what you put them in, winning drivers will do the same,” Dillon said. “I think it’s a little bit of a balance there, but I think you’re seeing within teams – week to week – you don’t know which driver within that team might win or might be two laps down.

“It’s been quite fascinating. You see two Hendrick cars run really well and two run bad. You’ll see one RCR car run well and one RCR run bad. Same thing with us at Petty GMS. It seems like we haven’t had really one weekend where (Dillon and teammate Erik Jones) both been really, really strong. But we’ve both had our strong weeks.

“This car has a really fine line, and seemingly when the driver, crew chief, team combo hits the right setup at the right time, you take off and you can have a chance. I haven’t had a weekend where I’ve gone into it where I don’t believe that if we hit it right, we can win the race. I didn’t feel that way in the past, and I think this car provides that for everyone.

“I feel very confident that at Petty GMS, when we hit right, we’re going to have a chance to win a race. I think this past weekend was a real showing of that. We could have won that race if we were in the right spot at the right time at the end of the race; and if different things would have worked out in our favor in strategy and rain-wise. I think you’re never out of it with this car, which is a welcoming sign.”

Here is a look at top 10s per organization compared to at this time last year:

  • 19 — Hendrick Motorsports (21 top 10s last year)
  • 15 — Joe Gibbs Racing (24 top 10s last year)
  • 13 — Team Penske (same number last year)
  • 10 — Stewart-Haas Racing (7 top 10s last year)
  • 8 — Richard Childress Racing (6 top 10s last year)
  • 8 — Trackhouse Racing (1 top 10 last year as a single-car team)
  • 5 — 23XI Racing (0 top 10s last year as a single-car team)
  • 3 — RFK Racing (same number last year when known as Roush Fenway Racing)
  • 3 — Petty GMS Motorsports (2 top 10s last year as RPM Motorsports)
  • 2 — Front Row Motorsports (3 top 10s last year)
  • 1 — JTG Daugherty Racing (3 top 10s last year when two-car team)
  • 1 — Kaulig Racing (1 top 10 last year)
  • 1 — Rick Ware Racing (0 top 10s last year)
  • 1 — Spire Motorsports (2 top 10s last year)
  • 0 — Wood Brothers Racing (1 top 10 last year)

* Chip Ganassi Racing, which does not exist this season, had three top 10s at this point last year.

3. Study guide

Among the many tools for drivers to prepare for races is video.

For Daytona 500 champion Austin Cindric, preparing for this weekend’s race at Talladega was a bit more difficult while watching video of Daytona, the first superspeedway race with the new car.

“The hardest part for me when I’m watching film, especially when it’s races that I’m in is it’s hard to not just watch yourself,” the Cup rookie said. “You watch the race and you’re like, ‘Oh, I remember this. I remember that. This guy was an idiot.’

“You try and remember the race that you were in, but the bigger picture of doing the film study is to watch other moves other people make and different trends.

“Kyle Busch was leading a lane, for example, and understanding and looking at the data and looking at the film. ‘OK, what’s he doing to try and keep the lead? What are the other guys playing with? How does that evolve throughout the race as people learn things?’

“Those are the things that you pause the video and look at and understand. It’s a lot of information and trying to figure out what the things that are most important to look at and think about, but also at the same time ... keeping an open mind is important because I think with this car, I feel like there was a pretty good science to it with the Xfinity car, if I’m being honest, where as I feel like with this car it’s much more dependent on what’s happening in the pack versus what’s happening with the air.”

4. Impact of penalties

Ryan Sparks was back as Corey LaJoie’s crew chief last weekend at Bristol after having sat out the previous four races because a wheel came off LaJoie’s car during a race at Phoenix.

One of the challenges for NASCAR is create penalties that are equal for all teams. Fans often complain of seemingly small penalties to big teams, saying they should be fined more than a smaller team that incurs the same penalty. NASCAR looks to craft penalties that equally penalize a team.

But having a crew chief out for four races likely isn’t going to impact a bigger team more than a smaller team.

LaJoie explained how losing Sparks impacted his team.

“We didn’t have the greatest setup of communication, live time with (Sparks), like a lot of (teams) have war rooms set up,” LaJoie said, referencing rooms back at race shops with engineers and other team personnel developing strategy and monitoring various items with their cars and others in the field.

“(Sparks had) Slack and he’s got his laptop and he’s got his NASCAR app with our scanner up. That’s really and truly what we did. He’s always a couple of laps behind in the way the race was played out. We were truly crippled by our crew chief (not) being there. We’ve got him back now, and hopefully keep all the wheels on it and have him for the rest of the year.”

5. Odd numbers

A few odd stats heading into this weekend’s race at Talladega:

Former champion Martin Truex Jr. has never won at Talladega or Daytona in 68 Cup starts. His best finish at either track is second in the 2016 Daytona 500 and the 2018 summer Daytona race. His best finish at Talladega is fifth in the spring 2015 race. He’s finished outside the top 10 in the last 12 Talladega Cup races.

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson has never finished in the top five in a Cup race at either Daytona or Talladega. His best Daytona finish is sixth in the summer 2016 race. Larson’s best Talladega finish is sixth in the 2016 playoff race. He has finished outside the top 10 in the last eight Talladega races. Larson has been 37th or worse in four of the last eight Talladega races.

Four of the last seven races at Daytona and Talladega were won by a driver scoring their first career victory. They were:

  • Austin Cindric (2022 Daytona 500)
  • Bubba Wallace (2021 Talladega playoff race)
  • Michael McDowell (2021 Daytona 500)
  • William Byron (2020 Daytona regular-season finale)