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

1 Comment

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
Mark Martin scored 35 of Jack Roush’s 137 Cup wins. (Photo by Harold Hinson/Sporting News via Getty Images 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
Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher each took part in the NASCAR organizational test this week at Phoenix Raceway. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

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
Joe Gibbs Racing seeks sponsorship for Kyle Busch’s team with M&M’s leaving after this season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“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
Daniel Suarez says “we’re going to win a race this year.” (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“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.”

Texas Xfinity results: Noah Gragson wins playoff opener

0 Comments

Noah Gragson is rolling through the NASCAR Xfinity Series like a bowling ball headed toward a strike.

Gragson won for the fourth consecutive race Saturday, taking the lead with 11 laps left and winning the 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway. The victory put Gragson in the second round of the playoffs.

Finishing behind him in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

Texas Xfinity results

The race was pockmarked by wrecks, scrambling the 12-driver playoff field.

POINTS REPORT

Noah Gragson remains the points leader after his win. He has 2,107 points. AJ Allmendinger is next, 26 points behind.

Sam Mayer and Ryan Sieg hold the final two transfer spots. They are one point ahead of Riley Herbst, eight points ahead of Daniel Hemric, 13 points ahead of Brandon Jones and 29 points ahead of Jeremy Clements.

Texas Xfinity driver points

The Xfinity playoffs will continue Oct. 1 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, USA Network).

Noah Gragson wins Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway

0 Comments

Noah Gragson opened the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs the same way he has run much of the season.

Gragson sidestepped a web of issues plaguing playoff drivers and won Saturday’s 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway, tying a decades-old Xfinity record by winning for the fourth consecutive race. Sam Ard, formerly a series mainstay, won four in a row in 1983.

Gragson, continuing to establish himself as the championship favorite, took the lead with 11 laps to go from Jeb Burton as most of the day’s leaders were running different tire and fuel strategies over the closing laps.

Gragson, 24 and set to jump to the Cup Series next season, led 85 laps. He won by 1.23 seconds.

“This number 9 team, man, they’re on fire,” Gragson told NBC Sports. “Luke Lambert (crew chief) and the boys executed a great race.”

MORE: Texas Xfinity results

The win was Gragson’s seventh of the year. Following in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

The victory pushed Gragson into the second round of the playoffs.

A big crash at the front of the field on lap 117 changed the face of the race. John Hunter Nemechek lost control of his car on the outside and was clipped by Justin Allgaier, starting a wreck that scrambled most of the field. Damages forced playoff drivers Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones and Allgaier from the race.

“The 7 (Allgaier) chose the top behind me, and I haven’t seen the replay of it, but the 7 chose the top behind me and started pushing,” Nemechek said. “The 21 (Hill) made it three-wide on the 9 (Gragson), and I was three-wide at the top, and I think we ended up four-wide at one point, which doesn’t really work aero-wide in the pack.”

Pole winner Jones, a playoff driver taken out in the crash, said Nemechek “was pushing a little too hard. Nothing to fault him there for, but probably a little early to be going that far. It is what it is.”

Six laps earlier, another multi-car crash scattered the field and damaged the car of playoff contender and regular season champion Allmendinger.

The wreck started when Brandon Brown slipped in front of Allmendinger and went into a slide, forcing Allmendinger to the inside apron. Several cars scattered behind them trying to avoid the accident.

Allmendinger’s crew repaired his car and he later had the race lead.

Playoff driver Jeremy Clements had a tough day. He parked with what he called mysterious mechanical issues about halfway through the race.

Below the cutline after the first race are Herbst, Hemric, Jones and Clements.

Stage 1 winner: Daniel Hemric

Stage 2 winner: AJ Allmendinger

Who had a good race: Noah Gragson is threatening to turn the final weeks of the Xfinity season into a cakewalk. He clearly had the day’s dominant car Saturday in winning for the fourth race in a row. … AJ Allmendinger’s car was damaged in a wreck in heavy traffic, but his crew taped parts of the car and gave him an opening to finish fourth.

Who had a bad race: Jeremy Clements, in the playoff field, finished 36th after parking with mechanical trouble near the race’s halfway point. … Jeffrey Earnhardt crashed only 17 laps into the race and finished last.

Next: The second race in the first round of the Xfinity playoffs is scheduled Oct. 1 at 4 p.m. ET (USA Network) at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

Cup drivers are for changing Texas but leery about making it another Atlanta

1 Comment

FORT WORTH, Texas — Some Cup drivers are concerned that a reconfigured Texas Motor Speedway could create racing similar to Atlanta, adding another type of superspeedway race to the NASCAR calendar.

While Texas officials have not stated publicly any plans to make changes, some competitors feel Sunday’s playoff race (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network) could be the final event on this track’s current layout. 

With the All-Star Race moving from Texas to North Wilkesboro next year, Texas Motor Speedway’s lone Cup race will take place Sept. 24, 2023. That could provide time for any alterations. Work on changing Atlanta began in July 2021 and was completed by December 2021. 

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson said work needs to be done to Texas Motor Speedway.

“I would like them to demolish this place first and then start over from scratch,” Larson said Saturday. “For one, they did a very poor job with the reconfiguration, initial reconfiguration. 

“I would like to see them change it from a mile-and-a-half to something shorter. I don’t know if that means bringing the backstretch in or whatever. 

“If I could build a track, it’d be probably a three-quarter mile Bristol basically, pavement and progressive banking. But I don’t know if that’s even possible here. I’m not sure what they have in mind, but anything would be better than what they did.”

Former Cup champion Joey Logano worries about another superspeedway race with such events at Daytona, Talladega and now Atlanta. 

“Do we need more superspeedways?” Logano asked Saturday. “Is that the type of racing fans want to see? Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano said he wants to have more control in how he finishes, particularly in a playoff race. 

“I want to be at tracks where I can make a difference, where my team can make a difference, and we’re not at the mercy of a wreck that happened in front of us that we couldn’t do anything about,” he said.

Discussions of changing the track follow complaints about how tough it is to pass at this 1.5-mile speedway.

“Once you get to the top, it’s almost like the bottom (lane) is very, very weak,” Daniel Suarez said.

Suarez has mixed feelings about the idea of turning Texas into another Atlanta-style race.

“Atlanta was a very good racetrack, and then they turned it into a superspeedway and it’s a lot of fun,” Suarez said. “I see it as a hybrid. I don’t think we need another racetrack like that, but it’s not my decision to make. Whatever they throw out at us, I’m going to try to be the best I can be.”

Suarez hopes that Texas can be like what it once was.

“Maybe with some work, we can get this race track to what it used to be, a very wide race track, running the bottom, running the middle, running the top,” he said.  

“As a race car driver, that’s what you want. You want that ability to run around and to show your skills. In superspeedways … everyone is bumping, everyone is pushing, and you can not show your skills as much.”

Chase Briscoe would be OK with a change to Texas, but he wants it to be more like a track other than Atlanta.

“If we’re really going to change and completely start from scratch, I would love another Homestead-type racetrack,” Briscoe said. “The problem is any time you build a new race track, it’s not going to be slick and worn out for a while. It’s trying to figure out what’s best to maximize those first couple of years to get it good by the end. 

“I think Homestead is a great model, if we’re going to build another mile and a half. I think we’re going to have to look at what they have, the progressive banking, the shape of the race track is different. I just think it’s a really good race track, and I think it always puts on really good racing. Anything we could do to try to match that, that would be my vote.”

Denny Hamlin just hopes some sort of change is made to Texas.

“I’d rather have another Atlanta than this, honestly,” Hamlin said. “Anything will be better than kind of what we have here.”

NASCAR shares prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer

0 Comments

FORT WORTH, Texas — The NASCAR garage is sharing its prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer DJ VanderLey, who was injured Thursday night in a crash during a micro sprint Outlaw race at the Texas Motor Speedway dirt track.

He suffered several fractured vertebrae and has a spinal cord injury, according to a post from his wife Jordan on her Facebook page. 

Two GoFundMe accounts have been set up to help the family with medical costs. 

VanderLey was Chase Briscoe’s engineer for four years, and they are good friends.

“I hate that it happened to anybody,” Briscoe said Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway, “but for it to hit close to home has definitely been tough for me.”

Briscoe said he planned to visit VanderLey in the hospital on Saturday and that “I just hope that everybody continues to pray. That’s really all we can do at this point, trying to hope he gets better.”

Christopher Bell calls VanderLey among his best friends. VanderLey was Bell’s engineer at Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016. 

Bell spent the night at the hospital and also picked up Jordan VanderLey at the airport when she arrived. 

Stewart-Haas Racing had a decal for VanderLey on Riley Herbst‘s No. 98 Xfinity car for Saturday’s race.