Friday 5: Brad Keselowski pushing RFK Racing toward excellence

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Brad Keselowski warned RFK Racing before this year, his first with the team as a driver/owner, what might come. 

“I’m probably going to wreck out of a number of races this year,” Keselowski said he told his team and the company. “It’s going to be for good reason. Every time, I’m going to push the car as hard as I can push it and probably overstep it. Something is going to happen and then we’re going to come back and we’re going to make it better.

“I understand that that’s part of the role that I have. As long as those failures are coming from a push and not a silly mistake, I’m OK with that, whether it’s me or anyone else in the company. We’ve got to push really hard if we’re going to get where we want to get. We’ve got room to go.”

A quarter of the way through the season, Keselowski sees progress. He’s not wrecked out of any of the first nine races and ranks fourth in the series in laps run, having completed all but four laps this season. 

While Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher each won their qualifying events at Daytona in February, RFK Racing seeks its first Cup win since 2017 when it was known as Roush Fenway Racing. Both victories that season came on a superspeedway — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won at Daytona and Talladega. The last time the organization won on any other type of track was 2014 at Sonoma with Carl Edwards.

It’s that history Keselowski seeks to change. As he enters Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway (3 p.m. ET on Fox), it’s easy to view this as a must-win event for him. 

Keselowski climbed into the top 30 in points and became playoff eligible after last weekend’s race at Bristol. That marked the first time since he and his team were hit with severe penalties, which included 100-point deductions for modifying a tail panel, that he was back in the top 30.

NASCAR Cup Series Bluegreen Vacations Duel #2 at Daytona
Jack Roush, Chris Buescher, Brad Keselowski and Buescher’s team after RFK Racing swept the qualifying races at Daytona in February. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Even with the uncertainty of speedway racing, Keselowski is viewed as one of the favorites. He is the winningest active driver with six Cup victories at Talladega.

With the way the team has run, the speedway style of racing at Talladega, Atlanta (July 10) and Daytona (Aug. 27) seems to provide the best chance for Keselowski and Buescher to win to reach the playoffs.

“I think there’s probably a little bit of truth to that, but honestly I’m looking at the next month and I’m really excited about the races we have,” Keselowski said. “I think we can win any one of them.

“We’ve got a lot of good stuff coming down the pipeline. We’re starting to figure some things out and find some of the missing puzzle pieces, so I’m not ready to say that we have to win on a plate track to advance to the playoffs. 

“I feel like we’re starting to find our game at other tracks, too. We have lot more confidence in the cars, and the team is learning a lot. I’m not ready to concede that, but certainly I’m going to still try to win those races, Talladega, Daytona and Atlanta. We’ve got a great shot this weekend. If we’re anywhere close, I’m going to leave it all out on the line.”

Since the Daytona 500 — Keselowski finished ninth — the team has had two top-10 finishes. Both were by Buescher. He was 10th at Phoenix and seventh at Atlanta. Keselowski has four finishes between 11th and 15th in the last five races.

“There’s still a lot of opportunities on the table for us,” Buescher said. “Definitely look at (Talladega) as a good one, a lot of confidence coming off Daytona and the amount of speed and maneuverability we had in our race cars.”

The Daytona 500 saw Keselowski trigger two accidents pushing cars. Keselowski pushed rookie Harrison Burton toward the front late in the first stage when Burton’s car got sideways and went upside down. A push by Keselowski six laps from the scheduled distance turned Stenhouse as they ran near the front. 

“I hate the fact that Daytona we were a part of two wrecks,” Keselowski said this week. “Honestly, it was time to go and my car could have took the same push that I gave those cars. … I was surprised in both instances that it didn’t work out better than it did, but I also know that the two drivers I had to crash with would have been mad with me if I didn’t push them. 

“It’s easy to get out of the car after a wreck and say, ‘Man, you shouldn’t have pushed so hard.’ I can tell you how the conversation goes if you don’t push, they come to your bus after the race and go ‘Why the hell didn’t you push me? Could have won the race.’ That’s just part of it. 

“It would be different if it was some kind of silly mistake where there were three cars in front and I was pushing them and, clearly, they didn’t want a push. When it’s a push for the lead or for the win in the Daytona 500, I think you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do there.”

While most of the focus is what happens on the track, what takes place at the shop often is as important. 

That entails turning the organization back into one that was among the sport’s dominant operations.

“I keep remembering this is as much a challenge as it is an opportunity to leave my mark on not just the company but the sport,” Keselowski said. “I’m OK with that. I like the challenge, and I like what’s in front of me. I can tell you that the success we’ve had, although not as much as we would like to have had, it means all the world to me.”

2. Shift in balance of power?

One of the ideas with the Next Gen car, along with cutting future costs for owners, was that it would bring teams closer together, giving more organizations the opportunity to win races or have strong finishes. 

A quarter of the way through the season, the same teams are the strongest. 

Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske had eight wins in the first nine races last year. Those teams have combined to win seven races this year.

Hendrick, Gibbs and Penske combined for 58 top-10 finishes last year through the first nine races. Those teams have combined for 47 top-10 finishes this season. Much of the decline is related to Joe Gibbs Racing, which had 24 top 10s at this point last year compared to 15 this year.

Most organizations have seen no more than a difference of three in the number of top 10s from this year to last year through nine races. 

The exceptions are:

  • Joe Gibbs Racing: Nine fewer top 10s this year from last year
  • Trackhouse Racing: Team has eight top 10s this year after having one at this time last year
  • 23XI Racing: Team has five top 10s (four by Kurt Busch, who joined the team this year) compared to zero at this time last year.

While the balance of power still remains about the same as last year, what does it do for smaller teams that were supposed to have a better chance?

Ty Dillon, who scored his first top-10 finish of the season for Petty GMS Motorsports last week at Bristol, says things are different for smaller teams.

“Winning teams win races, and no matter what you put them in, winning drivers will do the same,” Dillon said. “I think it’s a little bit of a balance there, but I think you’re seeing within teams – week to week – you don’t know which driver within that team might win or might be two laps down. 

“It’s been quite fascinating. You see two Hendrick cars run really well and two run bad. You’ll see one RCR car run well and one RCR run bad. Same thing with us at Petty GMS. It seems like we haven’t had really one weekend where (Dillon and teammate Erik Jones) both been really, really strong. But we’ve both had our strong weeks.

“This car has a really fine line, and seemingly when the driver, crew chief, team combo hits the right setup at the right time, you take off and you can have a chance. I haven’t had a weekend where I’ve gone into it where I don’t believe that if we hit it right, we can win the race. I didn’t feel that way in the past, and I think this car provides that for everyone.

“I feel very confident that at Petty GMS, when we hit right, we’re going to have a chance to win a race. I think this past weekend was a real showing of that. We could have won that race if we were in the right spot at the right time at the end of the race; and if different things would have worked out in our favor in strategy and rain-wise. I think you’re never out of it with this car, which is a welcoming sign.”

Here is a look at top 10s per organization compared to at this time last year:

  • 19 — Hendrick Motorsports (21 top 10s last year)
  • 15 — Joe Gibbs Racing (24 top 10s last year)
  • 13 — Team Penske (same number last year)
  • 10 — Stewart-Haas Racing (7 top 10s last year)
  • 8 — Richard Childress Racing (6 top 10s last year)
  • 8 — Trackhouse Racing (1 top 10 last year as a single-car team)
  • 5 — 23XI Racing (0 top 10s last year as a single-car team)
  • 3 — RFK Racing (same number last year when known as Roush Fenway Racing)
  • 3 — Petty GMS Motorsports (2 top 10s last year as RPM Motorsports)
  • 2 — Front Row Motorsports (3 top 10s last year)
  • 1 — JTG Daugherty Racing (3 top 10s last year when two-car team)
  • 1 — Kaulig Racing (1 top 10 last year)
  • 1 — Rick Ware Racing (0 top 10s last year)
  • 1 — Spire Motorsports (2 top 10s last year)
  • 0 — Wood Brothers Racing (1 top 10 last year)

* Chip Ganassi Racing, which does not exist this season, had three top 10s at this point last year.

3. Study guide 

Among the many tools for drivers to prepare for races is video. 

For Daytona 500 champion Austin Cindric, preparing for this weekend’s race at Talladega was a bit more difficult while watching video of Daytona, the first superspeedway race with the new car. 

“The hardest part for me when I’m watching film, especially when it’s races that I’m in is it’s hard to not just watch yourself,” the Cup rookie said. “You watch the race and you’re like, ‘Oh, I remember this. I remember that. This guy was an idiot.’

“You try and remember the race that you were in, but the bigger picture of doing the film study is to watch other moves other people make and different trends.  

Kyle Busch was leading a lane, for example, and understanding and looking at the data and looking at the film. ‘OK, what’s he doing to try and keep the lead? What are the other guys playing with? How does that evolve throughout the race as people learn things?’

“Those are the things that you pause the video and look at and understand. It’s a lot of information and trying to figure out what the things that are most important to look at and think about, but also at the same time … keeping an open mind is important because I think with this car, I feel like there was a pretty good science to it with the Xfinity car, if I’m being honest, where as I feel like with this car it’s much more dependent on what’s happening in the pack versus what’s happening with the air.”

4. Impact of penalties

Ryan Sparks was back as Corey LaJoie’s crew chief last weekend at Bristol after having sat out the previous four races because a wheel came off LaJoie’s car during a race at Phoenix.

One of the challenges for NASCAR is create penalties that are equal for all teams. Fans often complain of seemingly small penalties to big teams, saying they should be fined more than a smaller team that incurs the same penalty. NASCAR looks to craft penalties that equally penalize a team.

But having a crew chief out for four races likely isn’t going to impact a bigger team more than a smaller team.

LaJoie explained how losing Sparks impacted his team.

“We didn’t have the greatest setup of communication, live time with (Sparks), like a lot of (teams) have war rooms set up,” LaJoie said, referencing rooms back at race shops with engineers and other team personnel developing strategy and monitoring various items with their cars and others in the field.

“(Sparks had) Slack and he’s got his laptop and he’s got his NASCAR app with our scanner up. That’s really and truly what we did. He’s always a couple of laps behind in the way the race was played out. We were truly crippled by our crew chief (not) being there. We’ve got him back now, and hopefully keep all the wheels on it and have him for the rest of the year.”

5. Odd numbers

A few odd stats heading into this weekend’s race at Talladega:

Former champion Martin Truex Jr. has never won at Talladega or Daytona in 68 Cup starts. His best finish at either track is second in the 2016 Daytona 500 and the 2018 summer Daytona race. His best finish at Talladega is fifth in the spring 2015 race. He’s finished outside the top 10 in the last 12 Talladega Cup races.

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson has never finished in the top five in a Cup race at either Daytona or Talladega. His best Daytona finish is sixth in the summer 2016 race. Larson’s best Talladega finish is sixth in the 2016 playoff race. He has finished outside the top 10 in the last eight Talladega races. Larson has been 37th or worse in four of the last eight Talladega races.

Four of the last seven races at Daytona and Talladega were won by a driver scoring their first career victory. They were:

Jesse Iwuji Motorsports seeks $4.125 million in lawsuit against sponsor

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Jesse Iwuji Motorsports, a NASCAR Xfinity Series team, has filed a $4.125-million lawsuit against Equity Prime Mortgage, one of the team’s sponsors.

In the lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the team alleges that EPM committed a breach of contract. JIM alleges that EPM agreed to pay the team $2.25 million for sponsorship in the 2022 season and $3.75 million for 2023.

The lawsuit attempts to recoup what Jesse Iwuji Motorsports calls two missed payments totaling $375,000 from 2022 and the $3.75 million for 2023. The filing of the lawsuit was first reported by TobyChristie.com.

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The team scored one top-10 finish in 30 Xfinity starts in 2022. The team’s cars were driven by Kyle Weatherman and Iwuji. Weatherman had a best finish of eighth; Iwuji’s best run was an 11th.

The team was founded by Iwuji, former National Football League player Emmitt Smith and a group of investors.

The lawsuit claims that an EPM executive informed the team in September 2022 that EPM had been “margin called” and was dealing with problems because of rising mortgage rates and that EPM could not make any more payments to Jesse Iwuji Motorsports .

According to the lawsuit, Jesse Iwuji Motorsports sent EPM a Notice of Intent to terminate the sponsorship agreement after the payment due Oct. 1 was missed. The suit claims EPM “took no action” after EPM offered 30 days to remedy the situation.

The suit also claims EPM “allegedly continued to take advantage of their status as a sponsor of the NASCAR Xfinity Series team, as EPM continued to make promotional posts on social media, which featured the company’s logo on the JIM race car.”

EPM is based in Atlanta.

Dr Diandra: The best driver of 2022

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NASCAR’s elimination playoff format means that the driver with the best statistics — arguably the “best driver of 2022” — doesn’t always win the championship.

Races unfinished

Drivers involved in a lot of crashes also failed to finish a lot of races. But not all accidents end drivers’ races. Comparing accidents and spins to DNF (did not finish) totals helps gauge how serious those incidents were.

Ross Chastain and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were involved in the most accidents for a single driver with 15 caution-causing crashes each. The difference is that Chastain had only five DNFs (33.3%), while Stenhouse had nine (60.0%).

Ty Dillion tied Stenhouse for the most DNFs in the series with nine DNFs and 10 accidents.

Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon and Corey LaJoie tied for third place with eight DNFs each. Reddick had 10 accidents, while Dillon and LaJoie were each involved in 11 crashes.

No driver avoided DNFs entirely. Among full-timers, Michael McDowell had the fewest DNFs in 2022 with two. Justin Haley and Ryan Blaney tied for second with three DNFs each.

In 2021, only Denny Hamlin finished every race running. This year he had five DNFs, with four in the first nine races.

This year’s 225 DNFs are up significantly from 179 in 2021. and the most DNFs since 2017. I’ll be watching in 2023 to see if the rise in DNFs continues, or if this was a one-time phenomenon due to the first year with a new car.

Wins

“Best driver” doesn’t necessarily mean most wins.

This year’s champion, Joey Logano, didn’t have the most wins. That’s not at all uncommon in NASCAR. With 19 different winners in 2022, no driver dominated the season the way Kyle Larson did in 2021 with 10 wins.

The winningest drivers in 2022 were: Chase Elliott (five wins) and Logano (four wins). Christopher Bell, Larson and Reddick tied for third with three wins each.

Top-five and top-10 finishes

While wins matter more than good finishes, the number of top-five and top-10 finishes show how close a driver got to taking home the checkered flag. Running up front means being there to take advantage of other drivers’ mistakes and misfortune.

In 2021, Larson had the most top-five finishes (20) and the most top-10 finishes (26). This year, good finishes were much more spread out.2022's best drivers in terms of top-five and top-ten finishes

Chastain deserves a special shoutout for having 13 more top-10 finishes than he earned in 2021.

Also deserving of a shoutout, but for different reasons: Hamlin had the same number of wins this year as last, but nine fewer top-five finishes. William Byron and Martin Truex Jr. also had nine fewer finishes in the top five.

Logging laps

While Truex didn’t make the championship race, he did tie Elliott for the most lead-lap finishes in the season with 29, or 80.6% of starts. Blaney, Byron and Kevin Harvick each had 28 lead-lap finishes.

Elliott led the most laps in 2022 with 857. He’s followed by Logano (784), Byron (746), Chastain (692) and Blaney (636).

I remain slightly wary of metrics that purport to measure quickness because so much of a car’s speed depends on where in the field it’s running. Lap traffic, or even being far back in the field, can slow fast cars. That’s especially true at short tracks.

For completeness, however, the next two tables show the drivers’ numbers of fastest laps and those with the best rank in green-flag speed according to NASCAR’s loop data.

Two tables showing the drivers with the most fastest laps and the highest rank in green-flag speedChampion Logano ranked 11th in fastest laps with 319, and eighth in overall green-flag speed with an average ranking of 9.281.

Best Finishes

The tables below show drivers’ rankings throughout the season for average finishes and average running position.

Two tables comparing 2022's best drivers in terms of average finish and average running position

Elliott ranks first in both average finish and running position. Chastain takes second for best average finish and fourth for best average running position, while Blaney is second for running position and fourth for finishing position.

Logano finished 2022 third in both metrics.

Passing

NASCAR defines a quality pass as a pass for position inside the top 15. Interpreting the meaning of the number of passes is a little tricky. A driver who runs up front a lot doesn’t make many quality passes because he doesn’t need to.

I focus instead on the percentage of quality passes: the fraction of all green-flag passes that qualify as quality passes. A higher percentage means that the driver is efficient: The passes mean something.

Elliott scores first in percentage of quality passes with 63.4%, just edging out Bell, who has 63.3% quality passes. Larson is third with 61.2%.

Who was the best driver in 2022?

I combined the metrics I think matter most for determining the best driver in the table below. I color-coded drivers who appear in the top five in more than one metric to make it easier to see patterns.

A table showing the top five in each of the metrics discussed in the hopes of identifying 2022's best driver.

This table confirms that the NASCAR playoffs format did a good job identifying the top four drivers in the series. Elliott, Logano, Chastain and Bell are well-represented in the top five in each metric.

The table also shows that Larson and Blaney contended strongly in 2022. With a slightly different distribution of luck, one (or both) might have found their way to the Championship Four.

Logano’s consistency is also evident, even though he doesn’t rank first in any of these metrics and fails to make the table in top-five finishes or quality passes. It’s not uncommon for the driver with the most wins not to win the championship. And this year has been anything but common.

But overall, it’s hard not to argue that Elliott had the statistically best year. He led the series in wins, laps led, average finish, average running position and percent quality passes. If his playoffs had been comparable to his regular season, he would have taken the trophy.

But they weren’t and he didn’t. That may have ended the 2022 season on a down note for the No. 9 team, but they can look forward to 2023 knowing they have a strong base on which to build.

While skill is reproducible, luck isn’t.

Kaz Grala, Connor Mosack join Sam Hunt Racing for 2023

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Kaz Grala is scheduled to run the full NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule for Sam Hunt Racing in 2023.

Connor Mosack will drive a second Hunt car — No. 24 — in 20 races for the team. Grala will drive the No. 26 Toyota.

The new season will mark Grala’s first as a full-time Xfinity driver.

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“I’ve scratched and clawed for each opportunity over the past several seasons, and while it hasn’t been easy, it’s made me appreciate this sport and its difficulty more than I ever could if things had been easy,” Grala said in a statement released by the team. “I feel like everything has finally come together at the perfect time in my life with the right team around me to start that next chapter in my career.”

Grala, 23, has scored five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 44 Xfinity starts. He has raced in all three NASCAR national series and won a Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway in 2017.

Allen Hart will be Grala’s crew chief.

Mosack, who will begin his schedule at Phoenix Raceway March 11, was the CARS Tour rookie of the year in 2020. He drove in two Xfinity and two Truck races in 2022.

Kris Bowen will be Mosack’s crew chief. The team said it will announce other drivers for the 24 car later.

 

Ryan Truex to drive six races for JGR Xfinity team in 2023

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Ryan Truex is scheduled to run six Xfinity Series races in the No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023.

Truex ran five races for JGR in 2022, finishing in the top five three times. He ran third at Atlanta.

Truex also drove limited Xfinity schedules for JGR in 2011 and 2012.

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“We are looking forward to having Ryan back in our lineup in 2023 to run the No. 19,” said JGR vice president Steve DeSouza in a statement released by the team. “He has done well in the races he has run at JGR. His previous experience and driving ability will be assets as the No. 19 competes for an owner’s championship next year.”

JGR has not announced which races Truex will run or which drivers will be his teammates in the 19.

“I am thrilled to be behind the wheel of the No. 19 for a few races next season,” Truex said in a team statement. “It was fun to run well with this team this past year. I appreciate the opportunity to race for JGR again next year.”

Jason Ratcliff will be the team’s crew chief.

Truex, 30, has run 26 Cup, 84 Xfinity and 73 Camping World Truck Series races without a win.