Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After Chris Buescher Puts RFK Racing in the Playoffs at Richmond

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

It’s easy to miss quiet improvement on a weekly basis when there’s so much going on, but RFK Racing has been making that improvement steadily over the last couple of months. On Sunday at Richmond Raceway, team owner Brad Keselowski led laps and looked like he might have the dominant car late until a minor mistake on pit road took him out of contention.

But Keselowski came out of the Cook Out 400 a winner anyway, because teammate Chris Buescher took RFK to victory lane for the first time in 2023 — and this time, the win earns the team a playoff berth. Buescher gave Keselowski his first win as an owner last fall at Bristol, but he had already missed the cut. This year, both RFK teams could find themselves in the postseason, as Keselowski currently holds a spot on points with a hefty cushion.

After starting 26th and picking his way forward in the early going, climbing to second at the end of stage two, Buescher had a dominant Ford in the second half, with the only hiccup a very late caution when Noah Gragson and Daniel Suarez tangled, sending Suarez around and bringing out the only caution for cause of the day. But Buscher nailed the restart while Denny Hamlin spun his tires just a tick, and Hamlin then locked up his brakes on a last-ditch banzai move and that was plenty for Buescher to keep him and everyone else at bay.

And don’t forget Ryan Preece. Preece, who hadn’t scored a top 10 all year before Sunday, has had terrible luck in 2023. Coupled with struggles for Stewart-Haas Racing and Ford, he’s had an absolutely forgettable season to date. Sunday, Preece showed why he’s a NASCAR champion. He ran a smart race and avoided trouble, and when he did get shuffled back, he didn’t panic and instead drove straight back to the front. Preece is a smart, talented wheelman, and was finally able to show it with a fifth-place finish.

See also
Ryan Preece Comes Up Shy of Playing Playoff Spoiler

What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?

Last year was quite a spectacle when it came to race winners, with 16 different drivers finding victory lane before the playoffs started. That seems like an outrageous number, but 2023 finds the season four races away from the end of the regular season with 13 different race winners.

But how many more winners will we see in the regular season with four races left? A different winner in each race isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem because the four tracks are so vastly different, with the two-mile oval at Michigan Interational Speedway representing the last unrestricted oval on the docket. 

From there, it’s two very different tracks: the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the twisty, hilly Watkins Glen International. While both feature left and right turns, they don’t necessarily favor the same type of driving.

And finally, there’s Daytona. Superspeedway races are always a bit of a crapshoot, with crashes determining a lot more fates than those who caused them. Teams outside the playoffs can take a lot of chances at Daytona, and they have a better chance of paying off than most other tracks.

A winner won’t miss the playoffs, because Shane van Gisbergen is not eligible in a part-time ride. But could the postseason be an all-winners’ club? It’s still possible.

Where… did the other key players wind up? 

Pole winner Tyler Reddick had the car to beat early, leading every lap and winning stage one easily. He finished stage two in third, but a costly commitment line penalty getting onto pit road on a late round of green-flag stops meant a lot of positions to make up and not much time to do it in; Reddick finished 16th.

Defending race winner Kevin Harvick did exactly what he has done all year. Not having a car capable of winning in a year where Fords and his own SHR organization have struggled across the board, Harvick drove a quiet, trouble-free race to finish a solid 10th in his last trip around Richmond.

Last week’s winner Denny Hamlin couldn’t keep up with Buescher in the late laps, but he found himself with a second chance courtesy the late caution. Hamlin locked up his brakes trying to outduel Buescher with two laps to go, and he didn’t have enough for the No. 17, finishing second.

Active Richmond win leader Kyle Busch started on the outside front row, but while he had good speed as the best car in the Chevrolet camp, he didn’t have winning speed. Busch handled the racetrack well, keeping his car in the top 10 for much of the day. And when it counted, Busch was right there in the mix, finishing third on a day when his RCR teammate also took home a top-10.

When… was the moment of truth?

The fastest car won the race, and should have won the race. Sometimes that happens. For some fans, a caution-free race might be ‘boring’ because there aren’t any crashes or the restarts that create more crashes.

What Sunday’s race highlighted, besides that sometimes the best car really does win because it’s the best car, was the role that good strategy and execution plays. On the winning side of that was Martin Truex Jr. Truex and Co. didn’t feel like they had a winning car and played the strategy game instead — and it ended in a top-10 finish for Truex, who came home seventh after the late restart. Aric Almirola’s No. 10 team were able to overcome a penalty and finish eighth on solid pit work.

See also
Monday Morning Pit Box: Four Tires All Around at Richmond

On the flip side were teams who had fast cars, but didn’t execute they way they should have. Strategy did not work out for Michael McDowell, who’s fighting for a playoff spot on points. He fell a lap down in the second stage trying a similar strategy to Truex and came home 22nd. Reddick, Bubba Wallace and Keselowski all led laps and might have had cars capable of winning, but mistakes and penalties changed the narrative for the worse.

Sunday’s race was the epitome of the simple complexity of the sport. The fastest car won, but there was so much more to it.

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

There are four races left before the playoffs, and next week’s race at Michigan is the only remaining unrestricted oval race, representing the best chance for some drivers to make a late playoff bid. 

But even with the last push to the playoffs coming up, the most important thing to watch this week is a two-day test Monday and Tuesday at Richmond. The test, which was scheduled to be run a couple of weeks ago at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, trials a new underpan and other components in an effort to improve racing on flat tracks of a mile and under and short tracks, tracks where the Next Gen hasn’t been as strong as it has proven to be on the intermediate tracks. 

The changes are reportedly a fairly radical departure from the current package, and that’s the kind of change NASACR has to be willing to make. Fans love short-track racing and the tracks represented in that category, and making those races better is key to keeping them as fan favorites.

How… much better is it when you can see the whole race?

One of the bigger criticisms of FOX’s NASCAR broadcasts for the last couple of years has been the tight camera angles and focus on the leaders at all costs. So it’s been a noticeable change this season when NBC came on board for their portion of the season and started showing battles throughout the field.

NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. pointed out during the Richmond broadcast that sometimes these battles — battles to stay on the lead lap or be in position for the free pass, to gather a few points in hopes of a playoff berth, to prove a point — are the best battles in a race. The small teams who know a win would take a miracle take great pride in beating their peers. Rivalries aren’t always running for wins.

Have the races been better since NBC took over? That’s hard to calculate objectively, but fans are seeing more of the racing now than they were before. Fans at the track have the luxury of seeing everything that’s going on and choosing the battles they want to watch. Fans at home have to rely on the broadcast to bring them a complete picture of the races. NBC has been doing a great job of that so far. It’s likely to change in the playoffs, but for now, we’re seeing more racing on television, and that’s bound to keep fans interested.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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13 Comments
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SB

Not only has NBC covered more of the cars on track, but they have shown more than just the winner crossing the finish line! Kudos

gbvette

And yet yesterday as a multi car wreck was occurring at Start/Finish, NBC was showing the crew jumping up and down on pit road. They eventually got around to showing a couple clips of the wreck later in the post race show, but didn’t really got into what happened.

I’ve never understood why the networks seem to think a team celebrating in the pits, is more important then where every car finishes? It makes no sense. If the network’s have to show the winning team celebrating, then they should do it with a split screen showing the rest of the field finishing too.

Ronald Thornton

Green white checkers bunches em up and leads to last lap chaos and I get to watch a bunch of guys jumping off the wall. 3 hours of counting down laps and the most interesting lap of the day I didn’t get to see. Come on, man!

dawg

I was really looking forward to the change in broadcast partners, & I haven’t been disappointed.

I do however think than NBC isn.t getting their moneys worth from their announcers. I expect that they pay a substantial amount to Dale Jr. but he seems to have trouble getting a word in edgewise.

Burton seems to talk almost non stop. Most of what he says is on point, but some seems to be just chatter.
But at least he isn’t screeching much & that’s a welcome change.

Just like to hear a little more from Dale Jr. during the race.

AD

That isn’t Stenhouse and the #47 team. Might want to fix your caption under your lead photo

DoninAjax

It has the driver’s name on the roof!

RCFX1

The nasally voices of Dale Jr and especially Jeff Burton are so annoying that I have to turn the sound down so it’s not so overwhelming.

janice

here’s my question……will we still be hearing whiney hamlin still talking about pocono this week. i mean they beat that dead horse for every once of life it had all week and weekend long.

Bill B

While I’d love to pile on and join you in chastising whiney Hamlin, it’s the media’s fault not his. The media loves to stoke the fires of this type of thing rather than move on.

Joshua Farmer

Spell ounce correctly and your post makes sense.

Echo

You never hit a wrong key !!!

DoninAjax

No! It’s “u” never missed a key? There are now 16 onces in a pound.

Echo

lmao

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