Did You Notice? … 11 races through the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, RFK Racing has become the fastest Ford team in the sport?
That’s right. I’m talking about an RFK organization in just its second season with driver/co-owner Brad Keselowski at the helm. It’s the same team that started off its rebrand in a tussle with NASCAR over confiscated wheels at the Daytona 500, then was handed a killer 100-point penalty in March for illegal modifications after Atlanta Motor Speedway that all but kicked Keselowski’s No. 6 into win-or-miss-the-playoffs mode.
It’s a mission it never accomplished during a miserable 2022, par for the course for cars co-owned by Jack Roush over the past decade-plus. But something happened in the shadows of the Cup Series as that regular season came to a close.
RFK got fast.
Chris Buescher posted four of his 10 top-10 finishes in his final 13 starts, peaking during the playoffs with an upset win at Bristol Motor Speedway. Buescher led 169 laps during that event while teammate Keselowski tacked on another 109, in position to win himself until a tire issue cost him valuable track position during the final stage.
Overall, it wasn’t like either team lit itself on fire; both actually wound up with negative position differential during the 10 playoff races. Buescher maintained his spot in the standings (21st) while Keselowski jumped four spots to 24th, still his first miss in the elimination-style playoff format and worst season overall since 2010.
But the foundation was laid, followed by an offseason when leadership on both the Nos. 6 and 17 teams remained stable. RFK came out of the box strong, combining to lead 74 laps during February’s season-opening Daytona 500. Buescher went on to finish fourth, his third top-five result in the Great American Race during the last six years.
Since then? Both teams haven’t looked back. Keselowski sits ninth in points with two top-five and five top-10 finishes; that’s one short the number of top-10 results he had in all of 2022. Buescher is close behind, sitting 12th after back-to-back top 10s for each driver at Talladega Superspeedway and Dover Motor Speedway.
It’s the first time two Roush-owned teams have posted back-to-back top 10s since 2013, when Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle were both still racing for the team. You have to go back to 2014 for the last time Roush had two drivers qualify for the playoffs under the current format.
But what makes RFK’s success even that more intriguing is how the other Ford organizations in front of them have struggled. Combined, RFK has nine top-10 finishes between two cars. That’s within striking distance of the top teams — and both organizations in front of RFK employ more full-time drivers.
TOP 10s THIS SEASON, FORD ORGANIZATIONS
|Front Row Motorsports||2||4|
|Rick Ware Racing||2||1|
|Wood Brothers Racing||0||0|
Then, there’s SHR, which nearly has as many DNFs (nine) as top-10 finishes. Ryan Preece has 141 laps led this year but nothing to show for it; Aric Almirola was involved in a caution during each of the first six races. A retiring Kevin Harvick has been the only driver with consistent speed, but even he has finished no better than fifth in any race.
Compare that to RFK, where Buescher has posted what would be a career-best average finish of 15.5. Keselowski’s average of 15th is four positions higher than what he averaged last year. And it’s the only Ford organization that can boast all of their drivers are currently in playoff position.
There’s still a long way to go between now and August. But for the time being, RFK stands alone as one of the few success stories within a difficult year for the Blue Oval camp.
“We’re just grinding,” Keselowski said Monday. “The whole company is just grinding and committed to taking us to the next level to get both these cars in the playoffs.”
Did You Notice? … Martin Truex Jr. might have a reason to stick around a little longer? Owner Joe Gibbs said last weekend at Dover he’s actively seeking more sponsorship to put Martin’s brother Ryan in more NASCAR Xfinity Series races going forward.
Truex finally broke through at age 31, putting a cap on a journeyman NASCAR career that’s only seen him race full time just three seasons over the past decade-plus. Now, he’s a winner within a Toyota organization undergoing expansion and aligned with A JGR program that has two 40-something drivers: Martin and Denny Hamlin, whose contract is up in 2023.
John Hunter Nemechek has impressed in the other NXS Toyota, winning twice and sitting second in the standings. There’s also Sammy Smith. Beyond that? Not much, as Toyota’s development program has slowed to a crawl.
It creates an opening for Ryan if JGR can slot him into a full-time entry for 2024. Certainly, the prospects remain farfetched, but what if Ryan finally finds success in a full-time JGR NXS ride? It positions Martin to run one more year full time, then transition the No. 19 over to his brother if Nemechek is the one commissioned to replace Hamlin at JGR.
Sure, quite the theory, and I realize Smith is in the picture. But it feels like there’s a potential shift in the career trajectory of both Truexes after a successful weekend at Dover left them both sitting in victory lane.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …
- My take on the Legacy Motor Club switch to Toyota: Former Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson knows exactly how the pipeline works at Chevrolet. Was there really any chance Legacy would ever jump over HMS in the pecking order? Add in Kyle Busch finding a long-term home at Richard Childress Racing and it makes sense for Legacy to rebuild, now paired with a manufacturer in 2024 willing to give them greater support.
- Does Chase Elliott need to win a race to make the playoffs this year? Not necessarily. He already has more points than Harrison Burton, Austin Dillon and Noah Gragson and sits just 102 points behind 16th-place Chase Briscoe. That feels doable, especially with how well HMS is running across the board.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.
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