NASCAR Cup Series
Chris Buescher, No. 17 RFK Racing Team Break Through at Richmond
Jul 30, 2023
The mood within the shop of the RFK Racing team has changed dramatically over the last few seasons, and after the team's second win in its last 30 races, the swagger is starting to return for the storied organization.
You could sense it in the atmosphere at the RFK Racing shop on Tuesday during a company-wide celebration of Chris Buescher's win in the Cook Out 400 at Richmond Raceway.
There was a genuine level of excitement within the room among the roughly 150 employees, and numerous boxes of celebratory donuts and cups of coffee were consumed. Smiles, laughs, handshakes, high fives, and more were shared as everyone took their chance to snap a photo in front of the race-winning car and trophy.
As Buescher, Brad Keselowski, and Jack Roush took center stage to give an appreciation-filled speech to the group, you could feel the level of pride in the room increase.
What the team has accomplished over the last couple of seasons is impressive, and It's clear that the RFK Racing team has turned a corner and is once again becoming a consistent threat at the top of the NASCAR Cup Series field.
When times get tough in NASCAR, the message often becomes, "Let's just win a race." After their second win in their last 30 races, the RFK Racing team doesn't intend to relax. Jack Roush signed off his uplifting speech on Tuesday with, "Let's go win some more races."
The swagger is back for the Cat in the Hat, and it's not hard to see why.
Even before Buescher's statement win on Sunday, both RFK Racing cars were firmly in a position to make it into this season's NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs by way of points.
What a difference a few years make.
"Three years ago, this place was totally different," One RFK Racing employee explained to Racing America on Tuesday.
Back in 2020, the shop floor had become tattered, the warehouse lights were dimming, a pile of destroyed chassis was off in a corner, and morale around the storied organization had dipped.
This was a team that was used to winning and winning often. Not only did the team not win a race that season, but the two-car effort recorded just two top-five finishes and 10 top-10s during that 2020 campaign, and both cars had finished outside the top 20 in the owner standings.
Jack Roush, who had built Roush Racing, which went on to win the NASCAR Cup Series championship in 2003, and 2004, and was able to get all five of its cars into the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs in 2005, and team president Steve Newmark, who entered in 2007 as the team was rebranded to Roush Fenway Racing, had reached a crucial fork in the road.
They weren't content to sit idly by and watch the prestigious team fall off a cliff. It was time to shake things up.
That's when a unique opportunity presented itself for Roush Fenway Racing in 2021, as Brad Keselowski, the 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion driver for Team Penske, was available as a free agent.
Ultimately, Roush and Newmark made potentially the most important decision in the history of the race team as they made an offer that Keselowski couldn't refuse.
They offered the racer a chance to buy into the ownership group of the team, and with that, the team would be rebranded to Roush Fenway Keselowski (RFK) Racing. Keselowski, who is as business savvy as he is savvy behind the wheel of a race car, understood the chance he was presented and he took it.
Keselowski, in addition to becoming a part-owner of the organization, would slide into the driver's seat of the team's iconic No. 6 car for the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season.
As Keselowski came in, he took a look around. All of the key components for success were there in the Concord, North Carolina race shop. RFK Racing had knowledgeable mechanics, a large campus, solid sponsorship, and a long track record of success in the sport.
As Keselowski entered the fold, with him came a new shop floor, brand new lighting in the rafters, and an overall tweaking of the little details around the team's campus that had begun to fade over time.
While it seems silly, aesthetics can make a big difference in professional sports. As National Football League Hall of Famer Deion Sanders once said, "If you look good, you feel good, and if you feel good, you play good."
The shop now looked good. Really good.
Roush and Newmark didn't stop with bringing Keselowski on board. The team also brought in a bevy of employees from the now-defunct Chip Ganassi Racing NASCAR program, including crew chief Matt McCall.
McCall, who attempted to join the Roush team as a driver in the 2000s, had built a winning resume as a crew chief with Kurt Busch as his driver at CGR, now he was ready to bring his clipboard and notebook to RFK.
Creative Director Aaron Burnette was also added, and with that addition, the cars started looking good too.
Burnette took the RFK Racing team outside of its comfort zone with his bold paint schemes. With Burnette wielding the virtual paintbrush, RFK Racing was one of the first teams to take advantage of the newly approved chrome numbers for the 2022 season, and overall, the RFK Racing cars started becoming true eye-openers.
You look good, you feel good. And with the new looks, it seemed that the members of the team began to recover from the melancholy feeling that was looming over the shop during that trying 2020 season.
Couple the new look around the shop with the adaptation of the Next Gen car, which evened the competitive balance in the NASCAR Cup Series, and you had the perfect storm for a swift turnaround for the RFK Racing team.
As Keselowski made moves to improve the look of the shop, and Burnette went bold with the look of the cars, the organization's social media team, which includes Elijah Burke and Thomas Burfield, was given the green light to be a bit edgier.
Not afraid to push the envelope, the RFK Racing social team has been involved in a yearly meme war with Front Row Motorsports, and they're also not afraid to call out detractors or respond to posts that teams in NASCAR generally steer clear of responding to.
What it's resulted in is a thriving social following for the team.
The engagement of social media posts began to increase for the team, and, while there's no true evidence to suggest it was a correlation, as engagement increased, so did the speed of the race cars.
You look good, you feel good, and if you feel good, you play good.
Out of the gates at Daytona International Speedway in 2022, the RFK Racing team impressed in the Bluegreen Vacation Duels, as Keselowski and Buescher won them both.
While neither of the duo ultimately won the Daytona 500, and the performance wasn't what they had hoped for in the opening portion of the 2022 season for RFK Racing, Rome wasn't built in a day.
As the season rolled on, the RFK Racing Ford Mustangs became more and more competitive.
Then came the annual 500-lap night race at Bristol Motor Speedway. In that race, the two RFK Racing cars combined to lead 278 of the 500 laps, and the team did something it hadn't done in five seasons -- it won a race.
It was a big day, but it was just the beginning.
Fast forward to Sunday's race at Richmond, both cars from the organization were the class of the field once again, and had it not been for a miscue getting onto pit road by Keselowski late in the race, it could have been a sweep of the top two finishing positions for RFK Racing.
With his win, Buescher is now guaranteed to be in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs this season, and Keselowski is a virtual lock into the Playoff field as he stands 151 points above the cutline with four races remaining in the regular season.
RFK Racing, as an organization, now sits at 139 wins all-time in the NASCAR Cup Series, and it is clear after visiting the team victory celebration on Tuesday that every member of the organization, from the drivers to the janitors, has truly bought into the vision that Roush, Newmark, and Keselowski have had for the two-car NASCAR Cup Series team.
Photo Credit: Toby Christie, Racing America