The first Cup races give RFK Racing a moment to reflect and look forward

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

Brad Keselowski’s move from Team Penske to become owner/driver for RFK Racing was one of the biggest stories heading into this season. Leaving a team where he routinely won races for an organization that is 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 tour proved grueling for RFK. Uneven performances and some mishaps led to both Keselowski and Chris Buescher finishing outside the top 10 at Auto Club Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

On Sunday, Buescher placed 10th at 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 finish a “small win.” Keselowski, however, struggled to be competitive and was 23rd, a lap down.

“There have been ups and downs,” RFK Racing team principal Jeremy Thompson told NBC Sports of the start of the season. “We’ve had speed at times. We’ve led laps at times, and then we’ve been the last car on the lead lap and a lap behind at times. Really, to me, it feels very familiar for a new team.”

With the racing turn west complete, Thompson said it will help RFK.

“I think going back to the East Coast and regrouping will help us tremendously,” he said. “Our guys back home have done a great job building the cars, but when you’re growing up, the strain of this West Coast deal probably hurts you a little more than an established team.”

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Chris Buescher’s 10th place finish was a bright spot for RFK Racing at Phoenix. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Phoenix’s performance showed signs of some of the struggles the team had in the Clash at the Coliseum exhibition race last month, when neither Keselowski nor Buescher made it to the main event.

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

“Even though The Clash was a quarter-mile singletrack, it’s still a short track. Even though (Phoenix) is a 1-mile track, it has all the features of a short track and then adds some aero things as well.

“I think what we fought was similar. we have not achieved everything we thought we did with some of our work between those events. But then we scrape and scratch and we get a good ending with (Buescher). Execution matters. That’s what we’re really trying to hone in on as our processes for getting speeds up on these cars try to catch up.”

The bright spot for the organization thus far has been Daytona. Keselowski and Buescher each won their qualifying race. Keselowski led a race-high 67 laps before finishing ninth in the Daytona 500. Buescher was placed 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 a lot to the organization.

“He’s setting the bar very high,” Keselowski said. “It’s about having people who have the same beliefs, surrounded by them and then acting around them. It’s pushing every which way and every day, and not accepting less than our full potential, and I think that’s what we saw (with the Duel wins) was our full potential.

“There is a very good group of people here. We’ve put together a great team in the dark, and now we can prove it.”

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

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

Chase Briscoe, who got his start in dirt racing, was the last such driver. Kyle Larson, who won a World of Outlaws race last weekend, took the Cup victory at Auto Club Speedway. Alex Bowman, who emerged in dirt racing and raced small, fast cars more often in the past year, won in Las Vegas.

Briscoe suggests that there is a connection between those with dirty histories who are successful and the new format of limited practice before most events.

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

I think this car, being new, doesn’t get a lot of practice, the dirty boys have always had to figure that out quickly. Guys who grew up late model racing or on pavement, they don’t necessarily have that. They go and test and run hours of practice. Dirty guys, they have to figure it out quickly, adapt.”

Of course, had the circumstances been different in Las Vegas, it’s likely that Kyle Busch would have won. Or if things had been a little different, it could have been Ross Chastain.

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

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

Eight of the drivers, nearly a quarter of the field, have a Cup victory. Many of them have scored that victory since 2020.

Those with a Cup win who competed at Phoenix were:

Chase Briscoe (2022 Phoenix)

Austin Cindric (2022 Daytona 500)

Bubba Wallace (2021 Talladega playoff run)

Christopher Bell (2021 Daytona Expressway)

Michael McDowell (2021 Daytona 500)

Cole Custer (2020 Kentucky)

Justin Haley (2019 Daytona II)

Chris Buescher (2016 Pocono II)