For 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski, the single best indicator of progress is standing in victory lane, high-fiving your crew and hoisting a trophy over your head.
In his second year as an owner of and driver for the re-named Roush-Fenway-Keselowski Racing team, Keselowski, 39, still looks forward to that day. And although he does see improvement with the start of the 2023 season, he won’t go so far as to say he is “satisfied” with the current state of the team.
He has led laps in the No. 6 RFK Ford in all four races this season – including a race-best 42 laps in the Daytona 500. And both his average starting position (9.3) and average finishing position (16) are up substantially from 2022, his maiden season as a Cup Series’ owner-driver. And his 50 laps led in just four races is already a significant mark compared to his 224 laps led over the 36-race total of 2022.
“Undoubtedly we’re off to a better start this year than last year,” Keselowski told Racing America this week. “I would say until we’re in victory lane, I’m not going to be satisfied. There is progress, which is great and was sorely needed, but not enough for me to feel satisfied.”
And those that know this champion would expect no less.
I would say until we’re in victory lane, I’m not going to be satisfied.
When Keselowski bought into the two-car Roush-Fenway team last year, it had not celebrated a win in five years. By the 29th race – the famed Bristol Motor Speedway “Night Race” – the new look RFK Racing was in victory lane, courtesy of Keselowski’s teammate Chris Buescher, who led 169 of 500 laps to take the Bristol win.
It was absolutely a huge achievement for the team; a milestone. But there is more to do.
Keselowski, a 35-race winner and likely NASACAR Hall of Fame bound series champion, is a big picture kinda guy. Entering his 2022 inaugural season in the dual role of owner and driver, he’d won at least one race for 11 straight seasons – including a career best six in 2014 after claiming that 2012 title. Up until 2022, he’d turned in five straight Top-8 finishes in the NASCAR Cup Series championship, including a runner-up effort in 2020 to compliment his 2012 crown.
He still vividly remembers the distinctive feeling of success. And he also expects success in his new role to feel even sweeter. The trick is taking a measured, patient approach in re-establishing the team as a major player in the series – his role as an owner – and balancing that with his natural ambition to win, win, win as a proven competitor.
“The challenge is always, do you have results-based thinking or do you have process-based thinking?” Keselowski explained. “If you kind of defer to the results-based thinking, it’s more around, ‘Hey, are we running better? Are we competitive? Are we leading laps? What’s our average running position?’ Things of that nature. That’s results-based thinking and you want some sort of metric to measure yourself against.
“Outside of that, you’re looking more at your cultural initiatives. Is the company living up to its values? Are the people accepting those and embracing those in a better way? And I think that is probably more the managerial side of me and so it’s harder to measure and quantify, at least technically so, but subjectively, I’d say we’re making a lot of progress.”
This isn’t Keselowski’s first go at NASCAR ownership. His NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series team earned 11 wins between 2008-17 and twice finished runner-up in that series championship – with Ryan Blaney in 2014 and with Tyler Reddick in 2015.
And, he reminds, many of the same characteristics needed to make you a good driver, also are needed to make you a successful owner.
“The two are intertwined but whether you’re a driver or an owner or just a driver, everything is always connected,” Keselowski said. “This notion that a lot of our industry gets caught up in that the driver is doing all the work and so critical – you read the power rankings and things like that – you’d think this is just a driver’s sport any given day. But it’s not and never has been. It’s always been a team-based sport."
You read the power rankings and things like that – you’d think this is just a driver’s sport any given day. But it’s not and never has been. It’s always been a team-based sport.
“And so, I think some drivers do a good job of controlling the narrative to their favor, elsewise. But the reality is to be a good driver in NASCAR, you have to be a good team leader and you have to inspire and encourage your team to great results. There’s always been a management side to being a driver, at least at the NASCAR level. I think it’s just harder for people to see.
“Of course, my level now is just to another degree, my level of involvement on the management side. But it’s not like it wasn’t there before. So, I think it’s just a natural evolution for me to be more and more involved. And I’m enjoying the challenge. It’s super rewarding whenever you show signs of success, but of course, deeply frustrating when you don’t. But on that end, we’re showing more signs of success and I’m encouraged.”
For his part, Buescher, driver of the No. 17 RFK Ford Mustang, is also having a strong start to the season with Top-15 showings in three of the four 2023 opening races - including a fourth place in the Daytona 500, where he led 32 laps. Keselowski (-39 to leader Alex Bowman) and Buescher (-42) are ranked 13th and 14th in the championship, respectively. A year ago, they were 18th and 21st after the West Coast Swing.
Keselowski has won at five of the next six race venues, in most cases multiple times. He’s a two-time winner at this week’s Atlanta Motor Speedway, has a pair of wins at Richmond, Va., three wins at Bristol, Tenn. (not on the Springtime dirt, however) and two wins at Martinsville, Va. Keselowski is the winningest active driver at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway with six trophies and has won at Dover, Del. too.
There’s plenty of reason to feel optimistic. But while acknowledging this progress, Keselowski insists on a cautious, measured approach. No “rah-rah” speeches, only high expectations. The expectations of a series champion - and the team he is confident will be again.
“I’d resist the temptation to say you can achieve what you want to achieve in one rallying speech, although the ego in me would like to say, ‘yes, I did this and that,’ Keselowski allowed. “It’s been a constant evolution and most of the progress you make at this level is six to 12 months in the making. And so, the results today are a reflection of the effort put in over six to 12 months ago in a lot of ways - which is hard to see and hard to accept and understand, but a reality nonetheless. I think our whole company has been rallying and studying and trying to understand what we’re missing to be where we want to be.
“It’s constant dialogue,” he added.
And it’s working.