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Up to Speed: RFK Racing Forging a Path to the Playoffs

With half of the NASCAR Cup Series regular season in the books, we are getting a better picture of who is on track to make the playoffs. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that both RFK Racing drivers are among the 16 above the cut line. Owner/driver Brad Keselowski scored a fourth-place finish at Darlington Raceway last weekend and finds himself ninth in overall points. Chris Buescher clawed his way to a 10th-place result at the Track Too Tough to Tame. He is 13th in overall points with a growing advantage over the postseason cutoff. Considering the struggles this team went through in 2022, it feels like things are turning around for RFK. 

It was only last year that Roush-Fenway Racing brought on Keselowski as a new co-owner, hoping that his leadership could reverse a decade of declining performance. Although Keselowski and Buescher each won a Daytona 500 qualifying race last year, most of the season was rough. Keselowski got hit with a 100-point penalty early on and never found his groove. He earned no wins, only one top five and six top 10s the entire season. After being a perennial championship contender for over a decade with Team Penske, 2022 had to be a rude awakening for Keselowski.

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Buscher and the No. 17 team were the first to show signs of improvement. He ended a long drought by winning the second race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the playoff race under the lights, a victory that came too late to qualify for the playoffs. Buscher also earned three top fives and 10 top 10s in 2022, which were personal bests for a Cup Series season. The No. 17 team certainly had room for improvement, but it at least laid a foundation for bigger things in 2023.

Keselowski’s status as a former champion and Buescher’s Bristol victory made them both trendy playoff picks for this season. Yet no one knew for sure if the team had found enough speed to contend for wins more regularly. If not, could they score more points than the other fringe playoff contenders? Drivers like Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe, Daniel Suarez and Austin Dillon all won races and made the playoffs over Keselowski and Buescher last year. RFK would also have to contend with past Cup Series winners like Erik Jones, Bubba Wallace, AJ Allmendinger and Aric Almirola. The potential was there, but RFK was up against a lot of tough competition.

Now, 13 races into the season, the points are starting to add up, and Keselowski and Buescher are in better shape than most of the other bubble drivers. Cindric hasn’t finished better than 19th in the last seven races. Briscoe is on the playoff bubble, but his team has brought 30th-place cars to the track for the last three weeks. Suarez has been very inconsistent and has only led 16 laps all year. Dillon was having a disappointing season even before he got hit with a 60-point penalty last month. Jones, Allmendinger and Almirola have been nonfactors so far. Wallace has had an up-and-down year, but two top fives in the last two races have lifted him to 15th on the playoff grid. Keselowski and Buescher are ahead of all of them at 13th and 14th in the playoff standings respectively.

It’s not just that the RFK drivers have been avoiding bad finishes. Keselowski and Buescher have both done a better job of maximizing points and getting better results compared to last year. Keselowski has already surpassed his top-five total and equaled his top-10 total from all last season. Buescher’s improvement has been less dramatic, but he is on pace to score six top fives and 15 top 10s, which would significantly surpass his totals from last year. So far, 2023 is a job well done for both RFK drivers.

The one thing that could trip up both Keselowski and Buescher are a pair of Hendrick Motorsports drivers outside the playoff grid. Chase Elliott, who missed six races earlier this year recovering from a broken leg, is 28th in points. Alex Bowman has sat out the last three races with a back injury. Both drivers were expected to make the postseason this year and have demonstrated the ability to do so. Elliott has finished no worse than 12th in the five races since his return. Bowman led the points standings for three weeks earlier in the season. If not for a 60-point penalty, he would still be above the playoff cut line.

If Elliott and Bowman reach victory lane in the next 13 races, things will get dicey for the RFK duo. Although Keselowski and Buescher are performing better week to week than a year ago, they still do not have race-winning speed. Keselowski has been strong on the drafting tracks and came agonizingly close to winning at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March. He led 47 laps in that race plus another 42 in the Daytona 500. Other than that, Keselowski has led no more than eight laps in a race this year.

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Buescher has never been the type of driver to go out and dominate races. So far, this year is no exception. He has led only 38 laps for the entire year, 32 of which came in the Daytona 500. Buescher’s best opportunities to win will be the remaining superspeedway races and the road course events, where he has run well before.

If the RFK duo cannot find a way to get to victory lane themselves, their best bet is to hope for more repeat winners. That would open up more opportunities to reach the playoffs on points, and collecting points has been RFK’s strength in 2023. Yet if drivers further down the points standings (especially Elliott or Bowman) win races first, that will ramp up the pressure on Keselowski and Buescher to win.

Fair or not, the success of RFK’s season will likely hinge on whether or not one or both of its drivers reach the postseason. Seeing them get shut out again would be a disappointment, especially since Keselowski and Buescher appear to have righted the ship for RFK. Putting both drivers in the playoffs would be the biggest sign yet that the tide has turned for this team.     

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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Dawg

Making the playoffs is a worthy goal for any team.

But making them on points, is to risk being an early footnote.

Even some teams that got in with an unexpected win last year were eliminated, in the first round. And quickly forgotten.

So, easing into the playoffs, W/O race winning speed can become a hollow victory.

That having been said, like Jamie McMurray, I expected a victory from 1 if not both RFK cars. But it’s not looking as good as I’d hoped. Fingers crossed.

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