AVONDALE, Ariz. — As Chase Briscoe celebrated his first Cup victory Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, and Ross Chastain and Tyler Reddick relished strong finishes, RFK Racing pondered a challenging weekend.
Brad Keselowski’s move from Team Penske to be an owner/driver of RFK Racing was among the biggest storylines heading into this season. Leaving a team where he routinely won races for an organization now winless in 167 Cup events would provide a good case study on what it takes to rebuild a once strong team.
NASCAR’s West Coast swing proved taxing for RFK. Uneven performances and some misfortune led to both Keselowski and Chris Buescher finishing outside the top 10 at Auto Club Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Sunday, Buescher placed 10th at Phoenix for his first top-10 finish of the season. Buescher, who had never finished better than 16th in a Cup race there, called his top 10 a “small win.” Keselowski, though, struggled to be competitive and was 23rd, a lap down.
“It’s been up and down,” RFK Racing Team Director Jeremy Thompson told NBC Sports about the start of the season. “We’ve had speed at times. We’ve led laps at times, and then we’ve been the last car on the lead lap and a lap down at times. It really, to me, it feels very familiar to a new team.”
With the swing of races out West complete, Thompson said it will help RFK.
“Getting back on the East Coast and regrouping, I think, will help us tremendously,” he said. “Our guys back home have done a tremendous job getting the cars built, but when you’re growing, the strain of this West Coast deal probably hurts you a little more than an established team.”
The Phoenix performance showed signs of some of the struggles the team had in the Clash at the Coliseum exhibition race last month when both Keselowski and Buescher failed to make the feature event.
“It’s a holdover from that,” Thompson said. “It’s fair to say we’ve made gains in some areas, and we really didn’t close the gap in others.
“Even though the Clash was a unique quarter-mile track, it’s still a short track. Even though (Phoenix) is a 1-mile-track, it has all the characteristics of a short track and then throw in some aero stuff, too.
“I think what we fought was similar. We have not accomplished all that we thought we did with some of our work between those events. But then we scratch and claw and get a good finish with (Buescher). Execution matters. That’s what we’re really, really trying to hone in on as our processes to build speed in these cars try to catch up.”
The bright spot for the organization so far has been Daytona. Keselowski and Buescher each won their qualifying race. Keselowski led a race-high 67 laps before finishing ninth in the Daytona 500. Buescher placed 16th after being involved in a late crash.
After winning his qualifying race at Daytona, Keselowski reaffirmed his idea of building a “culture of high expectations” and how those victories meant so much for the organization.
“It’s setting the bar really high,” Keselowski said. “It’s having people that hold those same beliefs, surrounded by them, and then executing around them. It’s pushing in every way and every day, and not accepting less than our maximum potential, and I think that’s what we saw (with the Duel wins) was our maximum potential.
“There’s a really good group of people here. We’ve assembled a great team kind of in the dark, and now we get to show it.”
The good thing for RFK Racing is there is another race, another chance to do this, starting this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
The west coast wasn’t easy on us…
Ready to get back east, we’ve got work to do and we won’t stop until we get to the top. See you in Atlanta. pic.twitter.com/8ElADYMUwf
— Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) March 14, 2022
It likely is just a coincidence, but the winner of three of the first four Cup points races this season has experience dirt racing.
Chase Briscoe, who came up dirt racing, was the latest such driver. Kyle Larson, who won a World of Outlaws race last weekend, claimed the Cup victory at Auto Club Speedway. Alex Bowman, who came up in dirt racing and has run midget and sprint cars more often in the last year, won at Las Vegas.
Briscoe suggests there’s a connection between those with dirt backgrounds having success and the new format of limited practice before most events.
“I think you see the dirt guys … a lot of the dirt guys, when we go to a racetrack, you get three laps, three hot laps and you better figure it out quickly,” he said.
“I think this car, being new, not a lot of practice, the dirt guys have always had to figure that out quickly. The guys that grew up late model or pavement racing, they don’t necessarily have that. They go and test and run hours of practice. The dirt guys, you got to figure it out quickly, adapt.”
Of course, had circumstances gone differently at Las Vegas, then Kyle Busch likely would have won. Or had things gone a little differently, it could have been Ross Chastain.
Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Cup teams will have a 50-minute practice session since the track has been repaved and reconfigured. That will be the longest practice session for the series since Daytona.
—————————————————————————————————————————————————————With Chase Briscoe scoring his first Cup win Sunday at Briscoe, it means 25 of the 36 drivers who competed in that event have won a Cup race.
Eight of the drivers — nearly a quarter of the field — have one Cup win. Many of those scored that win since 2020.
Those with one Cup win who competed at Phoenix were:
Chase Briscoe (2022 Phoenix)
Austin Cindric (2022 Daytona 500)
Bubba Wallace (2021 Talladega playoff race)
Christopher Bell (2021 Daytona road course)
Michael McDowell (2021 Daytona 500)
Cole Custer (2020 Kentucky)
Justin Haley (2019 Daytona II)
Chris Buescher (2016 Pocono II)