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.”

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

0 Comments

Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

0 Comments

Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

0 Comments

LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

—————————————————————————————————————————————————

After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

—————————————————————————————————————————————————

While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

0 Comments

Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.