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Friday 5: Brad Keselowski’s quest begins to lead RFK Racing to prominence

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has countless people to thank in his Hall of Fame speech, as he features the likes of Gary Hargett, Tony Eury Sr, his sister Kelley, Rick Hendrick, Steve Letarte, his wife Amy, and of course, the fans.

It’s not the new sign out front or fresh paint in the shop that stands out the most to Chris Buescher since Brad Keselowski became part owner of RFK Racing in November.

The most significant change is attitude.

“It’s an expectation that we need to win races, that we need to make it into the playoffs with both cars,” Buescher told NBC Sports.

“We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard in order to get there. We have to hold ourselves to a top-tier work ethic, and doing all of that will help us reach our expectations.”

It has been a while since anyone outside the team had high expectations for this group.

An organization that had a driver either win the Cup title or be runner-up from 2002-06 and then had Carl Edwards finish second in points in 2008 and ’11, has struggled for much of the last decade.

The team started by Jack Roush has 137 career Cup wins but only four in the last eight seasons. The organization failed to have a car in the playoffs in five of the past seven seasons.

While the Next Gen car provides a reset, it doesn’t guarantee that it will cure all that has held RFK Racing back. A prevailing opinion is that the top teams will still win most of the races this season.

The path to return to elite status will be demanding. RFK Racing ranks third among the Ford organizations, well behind Team Penske (26 wins and one series title since 2018) and Stewart-Haas Racing (27 wins since 2018).

To reach that level will require a change in culture at RFK Racing.

“In my opinion,” Keselowski told NBC Sports, “you change culture with steady applied force and by leading through example.”

Keselowski has the right mentality to help this organization return to its winning roots, back when Roush came into the sport with Mark Martin in 1988.

Roush was a disrupter. His engineering focus helped move the sport forward and pushed the top teams.

NASCAR 2005: Nextel Cup Nextel All-Star Challenge

May 21, 2005; Concord, NC, USA; trophy Mark Martin Jack Roush during the Nextel Cup Nextel All-Star Challenge on May 21, 2005 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord NC. Mark Martin won the race (Photo by Harold Hinson/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Sporting News via Getty Images

In four of their first seven seasons together (1988-94), Martin finished either second or third in points for Roush. Martin’s 14 wins during that time trailed only Rusty Wallace (35 victories), Dale Earnhardt (32), Bill Elliott (17) and Davey Allison (17).

Then came Jeff Gordon, who transformed the sport with his success in the 1990s. In 1998, Martin finished second in four of Gordon’s 13 wins. For three weeks in a row, they went 1-2, with Gordon winning each time.

Keselowski comes to this team with the same mentality that Roush had when he started it. Like Roush, Keselowski hails from Michigan and is engineer driven. He also is curious. While he’s not going to examine engine parts, as Roush did throughout his career, Keselowski will make an impact in his own way. Just as he did when he owned a Truck Series team.

Keselowski helped develop Ryan Blaney, Tyler Reddick, Ross Chastain, Daniel Hemric, Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric and Parker Kligerman before the Truck team ceased operations after the 2017 season.

Roush Yates CEO Doug Yates, whose operation provides engines to Ford teams, notes the similarities in how Roush and Keselowski view things.

“(Roush) is an outside-the-box thinker, very competitive, one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever seen, always looking for an advantage,” Yates said. “Brad is a guy that’s always thinking outside the box. He’s always asking the tough question and always looking ahead.”

This week, RFK Racing announced that David Smith, who wrote analytics columns last season for NBC Sports, had been hired to head the team’s analytics department.

It’s that type of thinking that makes Yates confident in what Keselowski will do.

“Jack was really ready for somebody to come in and lead their company to the next level and Brad can do that,” Yates said.

NASCAR Test - Phoenix

AVONDALE, ARIZONA - JANUARY 25: The #17 RFK Racing Ford driven by Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher drives during the NASCAR Next Gen Test at Phoenix Raceway on January 25, 2022 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

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Keselowski said hiring Smith is just part of the team’s evolution.

“NASCAR is always changing,” Keselowski said. “Every year. Different rules. Different cars. Different teams. Different drivers. Different owners. Different tracks. You name it. Different is part of NASCAR.

“The challenge, over the years, is to stay on top of your game. What might be the best approach one season might not be the best approach another season for circumstances you can’t control.

“I think more so than anything else, it’s important to have a culture and a willingness to embrace change and accept the fact that some of the things that might have worked in the past might not work in the future.”

Keselowski looks to lead RFK Racing to better performances while still driving. He knows that is a delicate balance.

“The challenge of being a driver/owner is not letting your ownership role overpower your driver role, or your driver role overpower your ownership role,” said Keselowski, who has scored at least one Cup victory in each of the last 11 seasons and won the 2012 series title.

How does he keep that balance between the ownership role and driver role?

“I think you surround yourself with people that hold you accountable,” he said. “That’s the key to pretty much success in anything in life.

“Ultimately, the results will be accountable on the driver side.”

As for the ownership role, while Keselowski is employing change, one he doesn’t plan to do is be active in ownership meetings with NASCAR.

“At this time I’m not actively engaged in the majority of the owners meeting, nor do I desire to be,” he said. “I have the ability to communicate with our team and our representatives and give them my input and allow them the chance to voice it for me.”

That gives him more time to help return RFK Racing to the front of the pack.

2. Toyota’s future lineup

Toyota’s future could include more cars and should feature Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin through the end of their careers.

With M&M’s leaving Joe Gibbs Racing and NASCAR after this season, Kyle Busch’s team will need a new sponsor. While JGR does not reveal driver contracts, any long-term deal with a new sponsor likely will include a contract extension with Busch to assure that he’s with the team for the length of the sponsor deal.

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told reporters, including NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan, at Daytona for this weekend’s Rolex 24, that he’s not worried about the status of Busch and Hamlin.

“On a genuine level, (Busch) and Denny are similar in their true intention to retire out of Joe Gibbs Racing as franchise drivers,” Wilson said. “I think pragmatically you would have to ask yourself, “Well, where would he go?’ And there’s only a couple of destination points that would make sense. And it’s hard to see a path that makes sense in that regard, without naming names.

NASCAR Xfinity Series Tennessee Lottery 250  - Qualifying

LEBANON, TENNESSEE - JUNE 19: Kyle Busch, driver of the #54 M&M’s Toyota, waits on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Xfinity Series Tennessee Lottery 250 at Nashville Superspeedway on June 19, 2021 in Lebanon, Tennessee. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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“You know the way (Joe Gibbs) is wired. He’s on it. And there’s already some exciting possibilities that they’re working on. We’ll be OK.”

As for expanding beyond six cars in the Toyota camp? It’s possible. Toyota has been methodical in its growth. Kurt Busch’s arrival at 23XI Racing gives Toyota six cars. Toyota has Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Christopher Bell at JGR and Kurt Busch and Bubba Wallace at 23XI Racing.

Wilson said the Next Gen car could help Toyota add to his lineup.

“I have a fixed amount of resources, and it doesn’t extrapolate out as I add cars to it,” Wilson said. “The risk that we run with a previous generation is we spread those resources too thin. We’ve been very intentional on quality vs. quantity.

“Again, with this new car, those resources can spread further because there’s more restrictions aerodynamically. There’s more restrictions from a development perspective. So we can do more with the same resources. Now the mentality and intentionality is not going to change, and we’re going to continue to discriminate relative to making sure that we do it in a manner that makes sense. That’s with the right teams, the right drivers.

“For Toyota and the way we partner with our teams, we want to try and do so such that there is some semblance of communication and partnership. Though again with this new car, it’s not as necessary. You don’t need an anchor team like a Joe Gibbs Racing. Like when we had Furniture Row or fill in the blank.

“It will be more possible to have island nations just because of the nature of what we’re building. We’re always looking out at the horizon and talking to a lot of people, so we’ll see. I try my best to build relations across the garage with all the team owners, frankly. It’s a small garage when you think about it. And it’s nice to have options.”

3. Confident in winning

Daniel Suarez begins his second season at Trackhouse Racing focused on winning and is confident he’ll do so this season.

“Racing is not a sport that you can be successful by yourself,” Suarez told NBC Sports. “Look at the mistakes I made five years ago. I thought that my talent was going to be enough to overcome everything and it doesn’t work like that. Not at this level.

NASCAR Cup Series Verizon 200 at the Brickyard

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - AUGUST 15: Daniel Suarez, driver of the #99 CommScope Chevrolet, waits on the grid prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on August 15, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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“At this level you have to have everything, everyone in the right place at the right time, pushing in the right direction. … I feel very fortunate to have the lessons that I had, to be able to be here with all those lessons and with all that experience and with the team I have today to be able to go out there and fight for wins and a championship.”

Suarez, who won the 2016 Xfinity championship, moved to Cup in 2017 when Carl Edwards unexpectedly retired after the 2016 season. Suarez was at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2017-18. He went to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2019. After losing his ride, he spent 2020 with Gaunt Brothers Racing before joining Trackhouse last season.

He seeks his first Cup win. Should he get it this season, he said he’s confident he’ll get more.

“I can tell you that we’re going to win a race this year,” Suarez said. “I think more than one. The first one is going to take a little bit of work, a little bit of time, a little bit of pressure, nerves maybe, but once I’m able to get that monkey off the back, ‘OK we got the first one, now we’re going to be able to be more relaxed … now we can go out there and have fun.’”

4. Keeping the spectacle

Last weekend, Ford’s Puma Hybrid Rally1 won the season-opening FIA World Rally Championship round at Monte Carlo.

As the automotive industry moves toward hybrid and electric vehicles, would it make sense to have something similar in NASCAR?

Mark Rushbrook global director, Ford Performance, addressed that by noting the company’s WRC win last week:

“Hybrid in rally makes so much sense because they’re out driving on … real roads that are closed off, a point-to-point rally. There is a lot of hard acceleration and a lot of hard braking, so a lot of opportunity to recover the energy and then deploy it as you come out of the corner, and that’s worked really well in those cars and the performance in maintaining a spectacle because you still have the sound, the smell of a combustion engine, but also the electric application to improve performance further, and also tell a pretty cool story.

“As they drove through the service park it was full electric, so it was a quiet car going through downtown Monaco, but then a loud, beautiful sounding car out on the rally stages.

“NASCAR is obviously a different format. We’ve said for a long time that a hybrid on a track like Daytona, the oval, just doesn’t make any sense because the point of hybrid is regeneration of the energy under braking and then deploy it under acceleration.

“With the format of the big ovals like that or the intermediate tracks, it just doesn’t make sense to put hybrids, so maybe at some point, whether it’s on a short track or a road course would be the right opportunity. I think our world is accelerating so quickly to full electric that that is something that the industry needs to talk about, and I don’t think it’s replacing the combustion engine. I think that needs to stay here for quite some time, a long time. … That’s what fans want.

“They want the sounds, the smells. It’s a spectacle, but can the sport in some way bring in some other element with electrification? I think that’s what we need to talk through as an industry to continue to be relevant, but continue to have that great spectacle.”

5. Changes on the horizon?

As NASCAR prepares to run the Clash at the Coliseum Feb. 6 and then the Feb. 20 Daytona 500, teams and the sanctioning body will start to see how the Next Gen car truly races.

Recent test sessions have helped NASCAR make changes, but officials will find out more about the cars in races.

John Probst, NASCAR senior vice president of racing innovation, addressed how likely officials would be to adjust rules with the new car once the season begins.

“We’re going to monitor the early races,” he said at this week’s organizational test at Phoenix Raceway. “We’re not going to be super reactionary to every race and changing the rules for the next race. I feel like if we get into that role, you get too reactionary and then you have a hard time measuring the response of what it was you changed.

“Our goal is to monitor closely and act with a lot of calculation and consultation with our stakeholders. I don’t think you’ll see us get real reactionary putting out new rules every week.”