Early Cup races give RFK Racing time to reflect, to look ahead

AVONDALE, Ariz. — As Chase Briscoe celebrated his first Cup victory Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, and Ross Chastain and Tyler Reddick relished strong finishes, RFK Racing reflected on a tough weekend.

One of the biggest storylines of this season was Brad Keselowski’s departure from Team Penske to become owner/rider of RFK Racing. Leaving a team where he regularly won races for an organization now winless in 167 Cup events would provide a good case study in what it takes to rebuild a once strong team.

NASCAR’s West Coast swing proved to be trying for RFK. Uneven performances and a few mishaps led Keselowski and Chris Buescher to finish outside the top 10 at Auto Club Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

On Sunday, Buescher placed 10th in Phoenix for his first top 10 finish of the season. Buescher, who had never finished better than 16th in a Cup race there, called his top 10 a “small victory”. Keselowski, however, struggled to be competitive and finished 23rd, a lap down.

“It’s been ups and downs,” RFK Racing team principal Jeremy Thompson told NBC Sports of the start of the season. “We sometimes had speed. We sometimes led laps, then we were the last car on the lead lap and sometimes one lap. It’s really, for me, it’s very familiar to a new team.

With the racing swing in the West over, Thompson said that would help RFK.

“Coming back to the East Coast and regrouping, I think, will help us tremendously,” he said. “Our guys back home have done a terrific job building the cars, but when you get older the pressure of that West Coast deal probably hurts you a bit more than an established team.”

Chris Buescher’s 10th place was a positive for RFK Racing in Phoenix. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Phoenix’s performance showed signs of some of the struggles the team faced during the Clash at the Coliseum exhibition run last month when Keselowski and Buescher failed to make it to the event.

“It’s a holdover from that,” Thompson said. “It’s fair to say that we’ve made gains in some areas and really haven’t closed the gap in others.

“Even though the Clash was a quarter mile single track, it’s still a short track. Even though (Phoenix) is a 1 mile track, it has all the characteristics of a short track and also adds aerodynamic elements.

“I think what we fought was similar. We haven’t accomplished everything we thought we had done with some of our work between those events. But then we scratch and claw and get a good finish with (Buescher). Execution matters. That’s what we’re really, really trying to focus on as our processes to increase the speed of these cars try to catch up.”

So far, the bright spot for the organization has been Daytona. Keselowski and Buescher each won their qualifying race. Keselowski led a record 67 laps before finishing ninth in the Daytona 500. Buescher finished 16th after being involved in a late crash.

After winning his qualifying race at Daytona, Keselowski reaffirmed his idea of ​​building a “culture of high expectations” and how those wins meant so much to the organization.

“It sets the bar very high,” Keselowski said. “It’s having people who have the same beliefs around them, and then executing them around them. It’s pushing every which way and every day, and not accepting less than our maximum potential, and I think that’s what we saw (with the duel wins) was our maximum potential.

“There is a very good group of people here. We’ve assembled a great team in sort of the dark, and now we can show it.

The good thing for RFK Racing is that there is another race, another chance to do it, starting this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

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It’s probably just a coincidencebut the winner of three of the first four Cup points races this season has experience in dirt racing.

Chase Briscoe, who came into dirt racing, was the last such rider. Kyle Larson, who won a World of Outlaws race last weekend, won the World Cup at Auto Club Speedway. Alex Bowman, who came into dirt racing and raced midget and sprint cars more often last year, won in Las Vegas.

Briscoe suggests there is a connection between those who are successful in the dirt and the new limited practice format before most events.

“I think you see the dirt guys…a lot of the dirt guys, when we go to a circuit you get three laps, three hot laps and you better figure it out quick,” he said .

I think this car, being new, not much practice, the dirt guys always had to figure that out quickly. Guys who grew up with late models or pavement racing, they don’t necessarily have that. They will test and run for hours of practice. Dirt guys, you have to figure it out fast, adapt.

Of course, if circumstances had changed in Las Vegas, Kyle Busch probably would have won. Or if things had turned out a little differently, it could have been Ross Chastain.

On Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Cup teams will have a 50-minute practice session as the track was repaved and reconfigured. It will be the longest practice session in the series since Daytona.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————With Chase Briscoe scoring his first Cup win on Sunday at Briscoe, that means 25 of the 36 drivers who took part in this event won a Cup race.

Eight of the drivers – almost a quarter of the field – have a Cup victory. Many of those who have marked this victory since 2020.

Those with a Cup win who competed in Phoenix were:

Chase Briscoe (Phoenix 2022)

Austin Cindric (Daytona 500 2022)

Bubba Wallace (2021 Talladega playoff race)

Christopher Bell (Daytona 2021 Road Course)

Michael McDowell (Daytona 500 2021)

Cole Custer (Kentucky 2020)

Justin Haley (2019 Daytona II)

Chris Buescher (2016 Pocono II)

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