DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — Brad Keselowski left Team Penske in the offseason to join a Roush Fenway Racing. Not only would he drive for them. He’d be a part-owner too. As a result, the team was rebranded to RFK Racing.
In the first ever points paying race with this team, Keselowski beats his former ride.
Keselowski, triumphed in Thursday night’s opening Bluegreen Vacations Duel in Daytona holding off Austin Cindric by just .264-seconds en route to his first career Duels victory and second Speedweeks win of his NASCAR career.
“It’s just really good,” Keselowski said of his win. “It’s just so important. There’s a lot of guys and gals on my team that have never won a race before. The company hasn’t won a race in five, six years now, five and a half, something like that. That’s any kind of race.
“It’s really important to get that winning habit built up, and the only way you can really do that is to go win. That builds confidence in each other and builds expectations. Not just the expectations, that’s probably not the right word, it builds a reality that those expectations can happen. We had a really poor showing at the Clash, and we needed something to offset that, and this is a great offset for that.”
Keselowski, rode in tow drafting with Ryan Blaney for a majority of this race but on Lap 56, he felt like he had to make a move. Why ride in second?
The question was though, why make the move with four to go compared to later?
“Well, because last year in the 500 I ended up in a wad down here, and not that I was okay with that, but I figured maybe I wouldn’t end up in a wad with four to go,” he said. “I thought maybe my push would be a little more handleable — is that a word, handling? Handleable, something like that.
So, Keselowski took his No. 6 Ford to the high line in the tri-oval and received drafting help from Chase Briscoe from behind. It allowed the Michigan native to inherit the lead due to Blaney’s Team Penske teammate of Cindric being in fourth and too far back to help mount a charge.
“I got a good push from Chase Briscoe,” Keselowski said. “It was just the right amount, not too much, and then I was able to just kind of block all the lanes and my spotter T.J. did a good job to manage that for the next two or three laps — I honestly can’t remember how that all played out, but it was perfect. I got a good push from Chase Briscoe. It was just the right amount, not too much, and then I was able to just kind of block all the lanes and my spotter T.J. did a good job to manage that for the next two or three laps — I honestly can’t remember how that all played out, but it was perfect.”
However, one lap later, Cindric got to Blaney’s bumper and the two Penske teammates ganged up on Briscoe for second.
Blaney now was one spot behind Keselowski in second with Cindric in tow in third. Could they work together in the end and push each other by Keselowski?
On the final lap, Blaney tried to tandem with Keselowski around the 2.5-mile high banked track. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t work. He lost Keselowski’s bumper and fell into the clutches of Cindric who was getting help from good friend Briscoe.
The trio battled behind which allowed Keselowski to prevail. Cindric, was second in his No. 2 Ford while Blaney finished third in his No. 12 Ford. Briscoe was fourth while Chase Elliott rounded out the top five in his No. 9 Chevrolet.
“Yeah, it certainly didn’t hurt,” Keselowski said on making the move with only four cars in the draft in the end and if it was an advantage. “If there had been more cars, I don’t think I would have done anything different. You know, the risk proposition was a lot lower when you have that many cars because I think if it didn’t work I was going to finish fourth. That didn’t hurt for sure.”
Emotional Win For Keselowski
There’s no doubt about it, Brad Keselowski took a very huge risk by leaving an established power team in Team Penske.
Why leave a storied organization that you’re the all-time wins leader at, the guy who brought home their first Xfinity as well as first Cup championship to. Why leave for a team that’s won just twice in the last 272 races (2015)? RFR has just under 30 top five finishes, 80 top 10’s and 620 laps led since the start of the 2015 season. In that same span, Keselowski has 19 wins, 88 top fives, 148 top 10’s and 5,584 laps led. He had almost as many top five finishes (26) between 2019 and 2020 than RFR has had in the last seven years.
Why leave an established championship contending team for one that’s struggled for much of the last decade?
Well, Penske didn’t have an ownership stake available and Keselowski wanted to focus on his career post racing. Combine all the factors above, why not? With all the new owners taking over and an opportunity to help a team rebound to where they used to be, especially one with such deep Michigan ties, as well as secure his future for the long term, there’s no better time than now to do so.
A new car. A new NASCAR. Never a better time than the present to make this move.
2 races in if you count the Clash, he’s already a winner.
It’s not like RFR has been a down organization forever. They used to be among one of NASCAR’s powerhouses.
They’ve won two Cup championships to go along with 137 races. To go along with that, RFR has scored 758 top fives since their debut in 1988 with 1,790 top 10’s and 1,073,582 laps led.
They had a ton of success with Mark Martin who won 35 times, scored 234 top five finishes and 374 top 10’s along with leading 11,365 laps from 1988 through 2006 with the team.
Kurt Busch had 15 wins, 50 top fives, 91 top 10’s, 3,749 laps led to go along with championship in 2004 with them.
Matt Kenseth won a title for them in 2003 to go along with 24 wins, 126 top fives, 228 top 10’s and 7,143 laps led. Carl Edwards was a workhorse with having 23 wins, 108 top five finishes, 187 top 10’s and 4,842 laps led during his career as an RFR driver. Even Greg Biffle had a ton of success there. He won all 19 of his races with RFR. So was his 92 top fives, 175 top 10’s and all 5,844 of his laps led.
The problem is, once these drivers left, RFR was all downhill since.
Martin left after the 2006 season. Busch departed a year prior. That’s 50 combined wins, 284 top five finishes, 465 top 10’s and 15,114 laps led out once the 2007 Daytona 500 began. Edwards, Kenseth and Biffle kept it going but when Kenseth left for JGR following the 2012 season and Edwards doing the same two years later, RFR was never the same in wake of that.
Biffle was gone two years after Edwards.
Combined, that’s 66 wins, 326 top five finishes, 590 top 10’s and 17,829 laps led gone between Kenseth, Edwards and Biffle. Throw in Martin and Busch and that’s 116 of their 137 wins, 610 of their 758 top fives, 1,055 of their 1,390 top 10’s and 32,943 laps led out the door.
Having Keselowski bring with him a championship, 35 wins, 138 top five finishes, 227 top 10’s and 8,683 laps led is like bringing one of those past drivers back. Usually this has been a place where those drivers left but now they’re getting one as good if not better than all of them back in return.
With the proper resources and the proper talent, RFR has proven that they can be a consistent winner. I mean just look no further than what Tony Stewart did. He left a stable JGR organization after the 2008 season to do a similar role to Keselowski. Stewart, bought into Gene Haas’ team. Prior to Stewart, they had yet to win a race in 284 tries. They had just one combined top five finish, 14 top 10’s and 109 laps led.
Why would Stewart go there?
Well, he was 37 and also thinking about his future. Keselowski is also 37 now, has eerily the same amount of wins as Stewart when he made the move and helping own a better established team in Roush Fenway than Stewart was with Haas. Plus, in similar fashion, the Car of Tomorrow came out in 2008, one year before Stewart bought into Haas as well.
Stewart, won four times, had 15 top five finishes, 23 top 10’s and had led 414 laps in his first season as a driver/part owner in 2009. He also won 16 times in eight years as a driver for Stewart-Haas Racing including a championship in 2011.
Could this serve as a blueprint for Keselowski and a good measuring stick to look at for expectations? I’d say so.
This was the first victory for RFK Racing in the Duels since 2012. Coincidentally enough, it’s their only other Duels win and Matt Kenseth took his car to victory lane in the Daytona 500 that year. Can Keselowski who’s 0-for-12 win his first Daytona 500 in his first try without Penske?
He’s off to a good start. He did so with a heavy heart due to his father passing away recently. With all that’s occurred in Keselowski’s life over the last few months, this win was emotionally waht he needed.
Pit Stops Alter Strategy
Chevrolet had this race won early on. The bowties ran 1-2-3-4 early with the top three being all three Hendrick Motorsports cars. They’d look like the class of the field until the Lap 34 pit stop. The Chevy camp flinched first. The Ford’s came down pit lane for their first pit stops with this new Next Gen car available.
That flipped the field.
The Ford’s now were up front with the Chevy’s trailing a distant behind. It was now four Ford’s up front and the Chevy’s not really all that close to mount a charge.
That was the deciding factor of the race.
Kaz Grala Overcomes Pit Road Speeding Penalty To Make His Way Into Sunday’s Daytona 500
“Puke and puke.” That’s what Kaz Grala said was going through his frame when going down the backstretch on the 60th and final lap of the first Bluegreen Vacations Duel in Daytona. He thought the dream was over.
“It went from puke to puke, puking nervous to puking excited at the end,” said a happy Grala in the media center following the opening of two twin 150-mile qualifying races on Thursday night.
This was all or nothing for them because if they didn’t make the show, this opportunity could have been shelved.
“This is huge for The Money Team Racing, huge for Floyd, for Pit Viper,” he said. “This mattered a lot to us. There really was no option but to make this race. This is why we did what we did was to race in the Daytona 500. We didn’t come into this week ready to accept any other fate.
“It’s big for us being a new team to be able to do this. It’s huge financially. It’s huge exposure, the marketing. We want to run a part-time schedule this year. We want to try to run some of the road courses, maybe some of the closer, less-traveled races. To have a good showing like this and to hopefully have a good showing on Sunday will go a long way towards helping build this program into what they aspire to be, a full-time opportunity, and I’d love to stick with them for that.”
It wasn’t easy though and not for the faint of heart.
Grala, was in the money spot for the newly formed The Money Team for most of the first half of Thursday night’s twin race. With only one spot available in each Duel tonight to make the final two spots into Sunday’s 64th annual Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN), three drivers entered both and one in each knew that they had a spot into the Great American Race on speed.
So, Noah Gragson fell to the back and early on lost a lap. It was between JJ Yeley and Grala for that 39th position of 40 for Sunday. Grala, had a rather sizeable advantage when he hit pit lane for the first time of the race on Lap 34.
That’s when this race was flipped on its head. The Ford’s flipped the script on the Chevy’s and the running order among the open cars wasn’t spared either.
Grala, was hit with a speeding penalty for too fast exiting and that full advantage was gone. Gragson, who was last was now first among the open cars with Yeley behind. Gragson, wanted no part of it and fell quickly to the rear again.
Rightfully so too. They don’t have a backup car and with a spot already clinched, why risk it?
Yeley then looked like the one to beat with Grala losing ground. But, with drafting help and a push from Kurt Busch, those dreams that he thought were dashed no longer were. He went by Yeley and into the Daytona 500 as a result.
“It’s a relief, I can tell you that,” Grala said. “I thought for a while there that we weren’t going to make it and squeaked by just on the last lap. I made a mistake early, sped on pit road, shouldn’t have had that happen. Barely came back.
“We were running some fast lap times in that line towards the end, and I knew we were going to be close. I thought we might have a chance at catching him and the timing was just right. Right on the last lap we got to him, got by him and that’s what we needed to do to make the 500.
“I was worried as we rode by him on that last lap, I didn’t know if he was going to try something, try to block, shoot down in front of us. There wasn’t a hole for him, but I was worried about whatever he might try because you’ve got to try. That’s all we did.
“That was a relief. When we were catching him I could see with like two laps to go, I was like, I think we are going to get there, I really think we’re going to get there. I couldn’t even believe it, but it worked out.
“Yeah, huge relief. I was still asking on the radio even after the checkered, I’m like, are we in? Are we sure? Was that definitely the last lap? Are we definitely squared ahead? And luckily we were.
“Really thrilled right now. Disappointed in the mistake I made, but at least got that out of the way, figured out my dash. That was my first time working with this dashboard tonight, so not going to have any issues with that going forward. Really excited for the team no matter what way we got in.
“But hey, I was going into the night saying we’re going to make it. I’d at least want to do it in exciting fashion, so it was more exciting than I wanted but it was exciting.”
When asked when he knew if when he felt like he could recover from the penalty?
“Well, it was really about 12 laps to go that I thought we had a realistic chance of it. When we first blended off after that penalty, we were pretty much by ourselves. We picked up the 41, but just the two of us weren’t going to be able to do anything as far as catching the 55. I got ingratiated into that line there; Kurt Busch picked me up from behind.
“That was key for me. I needed a pusher. We really couldn’t hang on to a line of good cars as the last car tonight, so we’re going to probably tweak on it for Sunday and see if we can dial a little speed into it. But that pusher was key, and Kurt got us there.
“I was looking at the lap times on my dash – apparently I knew how to use my dash at that point – and we were running fast. I knew what we were running by ourselves and figured that that was what the 55 close to it was running, and I’m like, man, we’re really going to be gaining on him, but I didn’t know what the gap was exactly.
“So it really wasn’t until about three, four laps to go when I could see them and I was like, this could happen. Really right down to that last lap there was no relief because like I said, I didn’t know what Yeley was going to try. If he had an opportunity to try to jump into that line, things could have gone sideways really quickly.
“The key was our line staying formed up and being able to roll by him on the bottom, not giving him a chance to hop down in front of anybody. That was really a defining moment there, and then we just had to cruise to the checkered. Definitely took years off my life. Will Auchmoody, our team general manager, I’m sure took decades off of his life because he’s even more emotional and nerved up than I could ever be.”
He also notes this is the second straight year he’s been in, then out and back in again and that all his luck seems to be coming in the Duels now.
“I mean, this was definitely way more hectic going into the weekend because we truly started from scratch. We actually didn’t get any hardware from Starcom Racing, so this was truly all brand new fresh Next Gen stuff, and we had about a 30-day period to try to put the car together.
“It was hectic going into it. Kaulig Racing last year had everything buttoned up. They were an existing team; it was a lot easier, so pretty much turnkey, came here and raced. But as far as the Duel, I would say it was more hectic this year, at least from a stress perspective for me.
“Both years I have been in the Duel and I’ve been in, and then I’ve had something catastrophic go wrong and known that I’m out and I’m definitely going to be out and then miraculously exactly what needed to happen happened both years for me to get in.
“Apparently I’m lucky in the Duels, but I would have rather saved my luck for Sunday. Hopefully I’ll still have some left in the tank.”
On Lap 35 a year ago, two of the four open cars were collected in a crash with Grala and Garrett Smithley being collected when Chase Briscoe lost his No. 14 Ford at the exit of Turn 2. Fellow rookie Anthony Alfredo spun while trying to avoid him and Grala, Smithley and BJ McLeod had no where to go.
Grala, suffered heavy damage and thought his chances of making the Daytona 500 were done.
Luckily for him, he got lucky with that crash on the 56th lap as Smithley hooked Brad Keselowski and sparked a five car crash. Gragson, was collected too and saw his night end. Smithley, had damage and fell a lap down.
It left the final overtime restart for that final spot between David Ragan and Grala. That allowed Ragan to race his way in and not have to fall back on his time.
Cindric and Grala were the third and fourth fastest cars in qualifying last year and it allowed Grala to race for Kaulig Racing in 2021.
As far as what’s next now that they’d made the Daytona 500?
“Yeah, maybe superspeedway races. I’d say less likely. It’s too much of a risk to the car, and these Next Gen cars are so expensive that as a small team we’d probably have to try to protect our equipment. But obviously this race, it’s the Daytona 500. It’s the biggest race. It’s the highest paying race. We’ve got to be here.
“I would expect probably picking tracks that either particular sponsors want for our schedule or tracks that we feel we have the best shot at. I feel like road courses are very possibly our best chance simply because there’s fewer of them; we’ll be less behind the 8-ball with the other teams that are running full time. For us to go to a mile-and-a-half race, we’ll probably be many races behind in data of the other teams.
“We’ve got our eye on trying to do the road courses. I love COTA. I’d love to do COTA. That’s one we’ve got circled that we’re hoping to do, and I know we picked up some sponsorship for that race already and we’re looking to close that out, get the car full and be out there, keep building this program.”
Keselowski’s win is the fifth straight year a Ford car has won a Duel. They swept both Duels in 2019 to give them six Duel wins in the last eight tries.