Carolyn Manno awards the hero, heart and heartache of the Coke Zero 400. Austin Dillon’s recovery from his horrifying wreck in the final lap to finish a season-best seventh place earns him the hero title.
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.
Keselowski isn’t too concerned about accidents. He views them as a consequence of pushing a car to its limits. His competitors, however, have called him out for for his aggressive driving style.
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.
NASCAR weekend schedule at Sonoma Raceway
The NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series head to Sonoma Raceway this weekend. This marks the first time the Xfinity Series has competed at the 1.99-mile road course.
The Cup and Xfinity Series will take the following weekend off before the season resumes at Nashville Superspeedway. NBC and USA will broadcast each series the rest of the year, beginning at Nashville.
Friday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 69 degrees.
Saturday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 73 degrees. Forecast is for a high of 70 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the Xfinity race.
Sunday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 67 degrees and a 1% chance of rain at the start of the Cup race.
Friday, June 9
(All times Eastern)
- 11 a.m. — ARCA Menards Series West
- 1 – 10 p.m. — Xfinity Series
- 2 – 3 p.m. — ARCA West practice
- 3:10 – 3:30 p.m. — ARCA West qualifying
- 4:05 – 4:55 p.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
- 6:30 p.m. — ARCA West race (64 laps, 127.36 miles; live on FloRacing, will air on CNBC at 11:30 a.m. ET on June 18)
Saturday, June 10
- 12 p.m. – 8 p.m. — Cup Series
- 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series
- 3 – 4 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
- 5 – 6 p.m. — Cup practice (FS2)
- 6 – 7 p.m. — Cup qualifying (FS2)
- 8 p.m. — Xfinity race (79 laps, 156.95 miles; FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
Sunday, June 11
- 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series
- 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (110 laps, 218.9 miles; Fox, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
NASCAR penalizes Erik Jones, Legacy MC for L1 violation
NASCAR has docked Erik Jones and Legacy Motor Club 60 points and five playoff points each, suspended crew chief Dave Elenz two races and fined him $75,000 for the L1 violation discovered this week at the R&D Center. The team was found to have modified the greenhouse.
The penalty drops Jones from 26th to 30th in the standings heading into Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway.
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“We have been diligently working with NASCAR regarding the penalty and are working internally to determine the course of action in response,” said Joey Cohen, vice president, race operations for Legacy MC, in a statement. “We will announce that decision within the timeframe determined by the NASCAR Rule Book.”
Cohen will serve as interim crew chief during Elenz’s suspension.
Jones’ car was among those brought to NASCAR’s R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina, after last weekend’s race at WWT Raceway.
NASCAR cited the team for violating:
Section 14.1.C: Vehicles must comply with Section 14 Vehicle and Driver Safety Specifications of the NASCAR Rule Book at all times during an Event. Failure to comply will be subject to Penalty pursuant to Section 10 Violations and Disciplinary Action.
Section 14.1.D: Except in cases explicitly permitted in the NASCAR Rules, installation of additional components, repairs, deletions, and/or modifications to Next Gen Single Source Vendor-supplied parts and/or assemblies will not be permitted.
Section 14.1.2.B: All parts and assemblies must comply with the NASCAR Engineering Change Log.
NASCAR also announced penalties Wednesday in the Craftsman Truck Series.
Crew chief Andrew Abbott has been fined $5,000, Young’s Motorsports has been penalized 25 points and Chris Hacker has been docked 25 points for a violation with the team’s window net.
Crew chief Charles Denike has been fined $2,500 for a lug nut not properly installed on Christian Eckes‘ truck for TRICON Garage.
Kamui Kobayashi to make NASCAR debut with 23XI Racing at Indy
LE MANS, France (AP) — Left out of the NASCAR celebration at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Toyota used Wednesday at the track to showcase its own stock car program and the upcoming Cup Series debut for one of the top racers in the world.
Kamui Kobayashi will make his NASCAR debut on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course with Toyota in August driving for 23XI Racing, the team owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan.
The announcement made Wednesday had several top NASCAR executives in attendance – including chairman Jim France – as Toyota found Le Mans to be the perfect backdrop to spotlight the one-race deal.
Toyota Gazoo, after all, has won Le Mans the last five consecutive years and Kobayashi, part of the 2021 winning effort, is team principal of the two-car organization that will try to make it six straight wins in the most prestigious endurance event in the world.
Toyota had initially felt jilted when NASCAR blindsided the industry last year by announcing it would bring its new Next Gen car to centenary Le Mans in a specialized category that showcases innovation, but the project was with Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports. Toyota was the first rival NASCAR manufacturer to complain, and NASCAR has since tried to include all its partners in this weekend’s celebration and France signed off on holding the Kobayashi announcement at Le Mans.
It allowed Toyota to display the Camry it races in NASCAR; Kobayashi will drive the No. 67 in the Aug. 13 race. This will be the second race for the No. 67 car for 23XI Racing. Travis Pastrana finished 11th in the car at this year’s Daytona 500.
“We’ve been working on this assignment actually for a couple of years and Kamui has become a friend and we understood it was his dream one day to race in NASCAR,” said David Wilson, president of TRD, U.S.A. “With this great new Next Gen Toyota Camry TRD, the stars and planets started to align themselves and the next question became: Where should we announce this?
“It dawned on me with Kamui’s record of success, and being the team principal, to do it on this global stage at the biggest sports car race in the world.”
Kobayashi will be only the second Japanese driver to race in NASCAR’s top Cup Series and only the fifth to race in one of NASCAR’s top three national series. Kobayashi will be the first driver from Japan to race in the Cup Series in a Toyota, which entered NASCAR’s top series in 2007.
“It’s my dream, actually,” Kobayashi told The Associated Press. “It’s such a big sport in the United States and racing in Europe, I never had the chance or opportunity to race NASCAR. I think the opportunity will be challenging for myself because it is such a different category.
“But if I have success, I think it will make more opportunities for Japanese drivers. Toyota has been in NASCAR a long time, but there has never been any Japanese drivers for Toyota. That’s also why I say I appreciate this opportunity for myself.”
Kobayashi won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Toyota in 2021 and hasn’t finished lower than third since 2018. He has six podium finishes in eight appearances in the iconic endurance race.
Toyota trails only Bentley, Jaguar, Ferrari, Audi and Porsche for most wins at Le Mans. Porsche holds the record with 19 victories.
Kobayashi in 2021, after winning Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship title driving for Toyota Gazoo, was named team principal.
Kobayashi started his racing career karting in Japan but was discovered by Toyota while racing in Europe. He was named one of Toyota’s reserve Formula One drivers and made his debut during the 2009 season at the Brazilian Grand Prix. He raced in F1 through 2014 with one podium finish in 75 career starts.
Following his F1 career, Kobayashi returned to Japan and switched to the Super Formula Series, a class he still actively competes in. He’s since won the Rolex 24 at Daytona twice and was the anchor on an IMSA endurance sports car team in the United States for two seasons that was formed by seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.
Kobayashi loves racing in the United States, but IMSA’s adoption of new regulations to make its top class eligible to compete at Le Mans created a conflict of interest between Kobayashi’s Toyota responsibilities and continuing to race in IMSA, where Toyota is not represented in the top class. Toyota does field a Lexus in a lower IMSA division and Kobayashi raced for Vasser Sullivan Racing last June in Canada to get a feel for the GT car.
Many consider NASCAR’s Next Gen car to be very similar to the GT Lexus sports car that Kobayashi drove in IMSA last year, and that’s his closest experience to driving a stock car. He’ll be permitted to test with 23XI at a small track in Virginia ahead of the race at Indianapolis, and expects some time on the simulator.
Either way, he isn’t worried about seat time.
“I think I’m a guy who doesn’t need much practice, to be honest,” the 36-year-old Kobayashi told the AP. “I think once we jump in the car, we will be OK in a couple of laps. So I’m not really concerned about form.”