Mired in traffic was not where Chris Buescher expected to be. Sure, he knew that racing 22 cars on a quarter-mile track inside a stadium that has hosted the Super Bowl, Olympics and World Series would put him in tight confines, but when the green flag waved for last year’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Buescher was in traffic on the freeway.
He was headed to the airport — along with the rest of RFK Racing.
“A punch to the gut,” Buescher told NBC Sports.
NASCAR’s return to the Coliseum for Sunday’s Clash is not a redemption tour for RFK Racing, said Jeremy Thompson, the team’s vice president of race operations. He calls it a reset.
That’s what last year was thought to be with Keselowski leaving Team Penske to become an owner/driver of an organization that had gone more than four years without a points victory before 2022. The Clash was a chance for RFK Racing to show its new direction.
Instead, RFK Racing and Spire Motorsports were the only multi-car teams not to have a car in the feature.
“Yes, it was not a points race, but it just looked bad,” Buescher said. “And it was bad. It hurt our feelings more than anybody else’s, I promise.”
Through that disappointment, lessons were learned.
“We didn’t have a lack of hunger that was holding us back,” Keselowski said of last year’s Clash. “We had a lack of understanding our vehicle dynamics. Understanding was just not good enough on a lot of levels.
“We continue to invest in resources and people to continue to push that forward to where we can go to events like that and feel that we’re a threat to win and we’re not just trying to make the race.
“I don’t think I understood that when I came in, where we were at as a company on the vehicle dynamics side.”
It was clear immediately that Buescher and Keselowski were in trouble. Buescher was 21st on the speed chart in practice; Keselowski was 33rd of 36 cars.
“The car bounced so bad that I thought we were going to rip the transmission right out,” Buescher said of last year’s Clash weekend. “We spent all of practice trying to make the car just drive in a circle vs. trying to make it faster. We missed … before we ever left (the shop).”
Said Thompson about last year’s Clash: “I felt like our effort going into that was exceptionally high. We left no stone unturned. We just turned over some of the wrong stones.”
Two weeks later, both Keselowski and Buescher won their qualifying races at Daytona, but there was much work to do to overcome flaws with other parts of their program.
“We’re pushing really hard on vision and values of what it takes to be a high performer at this level, whether that is getting all the details right in the shop or on the road,” Keselowski said.
RFK Racing learned from its struggles early in the season, particularly with its short track program. Buescher, who had never placed better than 16th at Phoenix at the time, finished 10th there last March, a little more than a month after the Clash. He called his top 10 that day “a small win.”
Progress continued but it was not quick. Buescher placed third at Richmond last August before winning the Bristol night race in the playoffs. Keselowski was seventh at New Hampshire last July and won the first stage at the Bristol night race in September before a flat tire ruined his chances.
Keselowski acknowledges that turning RFK Racing into a team that can contend weekly for wins will take some time, but he sees progress.
“We’re not everywhere we need to be, but we definitely have a plan to get there,” he said. “Navigating that plan is challenging, but we’re on a path.”
2. Why not more horsepower?
NASCAR will take what it learned in last week’s Phoenix test to the wind tunnel on Feb. 13. If the wind tunnel test of short track enhancements goes well, changes could be implemented before the April 2 race at Richmond.
The changes being tested in the wind tunnel are a smaller spoiler (2 inches) and some adjustments to the underbody of the car.
Still, one suggestion drivers often make is to give them more horsepower.
“I think there’s a misconception that we could take the existing engines and just throw 200 horsepower in it,” said John Probst, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, in response to a question from NBC Sports.
“We do have multiple-race engines today that we have to keep in mind. (More horsepower) is something that we are actively discussing, but, obviously, we don’t do that in a vacuum. We do that with the engine builders.
“But anybody that has been around, we’ve raced high horsepower and low downforce before and ended up at some point in time deciding to go away from that to get more entertaining racing. … I think we’re open to entertaining any horsepower gains that we can get with our current (engine) architecture, but anything beyond that is actually not something that can happen quickly.”
Probst later said that keeping the engines in the current horsepower range could prove helpful for any manufacturer looking to join the sport.
“One of the reasons we landed on the horsepower range we’re in now is to try to land in areas that have existing racing engines designed for them, similar to our current (manufacturers),” Probst said. “We’re not hiding from the fact that we would like to encourage some new (manufacturers) to come in. That is part of the equation for that whole thing. I’m not saying it’s the driving reason, but it is a consideration.”
3. Crossing the line
The quarter-mile oval in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum will provide plenty of chances to hit bumpers, doors and other parts of the car Sunday.
But there’s a line between short track racing and racing without respect.
For Ryan Preece, who is running his first race in the No. 41 for Stewart-Haas Racing this weekend, there is a clear divide.
“There’s certainly a way to go about it in quarter-mile racing where you can pass somebody without hitting them,” said Preece, a veteran of racing modifieds in bullrings.
So how does he tell what’s crossing the line on a short track?
“If somebody drives into me getting into the center of the corner, they’re in control of their race car at that point,” Preece said. “So that or door slamming somebody, not even trying to make the corner, are two good examples (of not racing with respect).”
Preece relies on a lesson he learned racing modifieds with how to race in close quarters.
“I’ll never forget this, I was at Thompson (Speedway) and I used (seven-time modified champion) Mike Stefanik up pretty well into Turn 2 with probably six or seven laps to go, trying to chase down the leader. It didn’t happen.
“I said, ‘Oh, hey man, I’m sorry. I had to do what I had to do for my team.’ He looked at me and said ‘Well, what about my team? What about the guys I race with?’
“I think that day really helped me understand that side of things. You want to race with as much respect as you possibly can. There’s a way to do it, a way to race somebody hard but not overstep the line.”
4. On the same page
Dillon will drive the No. 77 car, which has never finished in the top 30 in car owner points since its debut in 2019. The best the car placed was 31st in owner points in 2021.
Dillon says he has confidence in building the program based on Spire Motorsports’ approach.
“We aren’t unrealistic about where we are,” Dillon told NBC Sports.
But he also said that management has workable goals.
“We said, ‘Hey, here’s where we stand in the spectrum of the race teams,’ ” Dillon said. “Here’s our goals. Here’s what we believe we can accomplish. The structure of what everybody knows and how we’re all pulling in the same direction is a real confidence (boost).
“We know we’re not going to be the team that competes every single weekend for wins, but we’re going to be the best at who we are. Over time, people are going to say, ‘Damn, Spire has taken a step.’ … We’re long-term focused and everybody’s on the same page as that.
“I’ve been a part of a team that said, ‘Hey, we’re wanting to build something.’ Well, you get 10 races in and they haven’t won a race and they’re throwing everybody out the door.”
Dillon said the “realistic, genuine expectation” at Spire Motorsports makes this situation feel different for him.
“The hope and optimism is knowing that we’re all on the same page,” he said.
5. Rule book changes
NASCAR announced a series of rule changes this week and stated that it would outlaw the video game move Ross Chastain made on the final lap of last year’s Martinsville race.
NASCAR also made a number of changes to the rule book this week.
— Intentionally damaging another car on pit road could lead a Cup driver to be penalized 25-50 points and/or 25-50 owner points and/or $50,000 – $100,000 fine. Last year, intentionally damaging another car on pit road could lead only to a fine of $25,000 – $50,000.
— Member to member confrontations with physical violence and other violent manifestations could result in a fine and/or indefinite suspension or membership revocation. Last year, such an infraction was listed as incurring a penalty of 25-50 driver and/or team owner points and/or a fine of $50,000 – $100,000. Violations also could result in a race suspension(s), indefinite suspension or termination.
— In the past, if a car could not go when it was time to make a qualifying attempt, it was put on a five-minute clock to do so. That’s changed this year. Now, the clock will be no more than one minute unless it is a safety issue.
Also, NASCAR listed the length of each Cup race. The inaugural Chicago Street Course Race is scheduled for 100 laps.