The easy thing to do is look at that both RFK Racing drivers led over 100 laps on Saturday night (Buesecher 169 and Keselowski 109) with Buescher scoring their first points paying win together. It was Roush’s 1st win in the last 191 races too and Buescher’s first in 222 races himself.
However, this story goes deeper than that. This story is just the beginning. The Bristol win is just the tip of the iceberg. You have to go deeper, much further below the surface to find the real story of just how big of a win this truly was.
Brad Keselowski is a dreamer. He’s also a big thinker. One that is relentless and won’t stop working until he gets those goals in his head accomplished. That’s why even when some folks called him crazy for leaving an established seat with a storied organization to join a team that hasn’t won a Cup race in 5 years, it was a task Keselowski wanted to take on first hand.
Keselowski isn’t built on just being complacent though. Most people in this world would be okay with their job in winning awards, making lots of money and just staying in their comfort zone. Leaders though? Well they don’t settle. They always stive for more and stive to be the greatest at everything they do.
Winners want to be challenged. They think long-term and not what’s happening in the moment. Keselowski isn’t a person that’s worried about the right now. He’s about leaving a legacy for his name, for his family, for his wife and kids. Sure, he could have won many more races with Team Penske and even taken another championship or two in the process.
But what about a decade from now? Where would he be then?
Last summer, a Michigan born race car driver bought into an organization owned by a Michigan man. Keselowski came from the same mold as Jack Roush. They just took different paths to come together. Now two Michigan men sharing the same goal with one able to finally bring the other what he’s long been chasing since his team was left for ruin.
At one point, Jack Roush was one of the teams to beat. Then a change over occurred. It was a place to where drivers came to leave. Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, all had success with Roush before they each left for new teams.
There was that lull that some wondered when the tidal wave was going to come over. They went from annually competing for championships to just trying to get by.
Keselowski knew what it took to be a successful owner. He groomed several Cup drivers now in his Truck Series team. From Daniel Hemric to Tyler Reddick to Ryan Blaney you name it, they all were groomed under Keselowski’s tutelage.
Running a Truck team became too expensive, so Keselowski had to sell it all off. He turned his focus back to full time Cup Series driving but always had his eye on the future and wanting to get back in the ownership game.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option with Team Penske and Keselowski didn’t want to do what Denny Hamlin is doing by racing for one team and owning another. That’s why he signed a one-year deal in 2020 to come back in 2021 but look elsewhere for a driver-owner role in 2022.
Roush made the perfect sense.
They needed help too. Keselowski could bring his talents over as a driver. He can bring what he learned from a Truck Series owner as well as watching Roger Penske every day for the last decade with him for the front office.
Together, two Michigan men with a Michigan run manufacturer (Ford) can take this blue-collar team from the basement to at least the ground level.
So off Kesselowski went. But you have to think that this wasn’t an easy decision still. He is a father. He is a husband. He’s human. He built a name for himself with a top team in NASCAR and he was taking a massive risk by leaving everything that he’s accomplished to build something new.
To do so, challenges were going to lie ahead. He wasn’t going to be home quite as often. He was going to be on the phone more. Those daily routine activities with his wife and kids were going to go by the wayside while he built this thing up.
There’s moments where little kids want their dad but their dads mind may be elsewhere. He may be stuck at the office. Some people have those big dreams and goals but stop short when they realize that it was going to affect family time at home.
Keselowski took the risk. He jumped in anyways.
At Penske, you have the resources to win races weekly and championships annually. Going to Roush Fenway (formerly), an organization that’s last win came in July 2017 at Daytona, it was going to be a challenge ahead.
Heading into 2022, Roush Fenway had 2 victories in the last 252 races. In that span (since 2015), RFR had just 29 top five finishes, 86 top 10’s and 620 laps led since the start of the 2015 season. In that same span, Keselowski had 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.
This wasn’t necessarily about making this team competitive again, that’s the easy goal, it was having to completely undo a culture that had settled into RFR and build a new mantra for RFK Racing.
That’s not an easy task. It’s hard to see through good people that may not be great people for this job. There’s some likeable personalities that were already established with that organization that had families, but Keselowski knew that while he liked them, they may not fit his criteria on what it takes to be great.
That’s the hard part of this job that no one realizes. To go from bad to good is one thing, but to go from bad to great is a whole different story.
There’s good people in this world that are okay with being okay. There’s also people in this world that aren’t okay with mediocre. They want greatness. They want to be on top and they’ll do everything in their power in the meantime to get there.
That’s what Keselowski was facing when he walked into the doors of the shop on Day 1. Who’s ready to work? Who’s ready for challenges ahead? Who’s ready for uncomfortable conversations and being put in uncomfortable situations to be great? Remember, there’s people that are with RFK Racing when he started that got content like Keselowski could have been with Penske. He had to see who can get outside of that comfort zone and follow where Keselowski was trying to lead them.
You can quickly tell who is and who isn’t and unfortunately some of the “who isn’t” may be great people personally but may not have what it takes to be at a championship level. So you first have to establish who that is and work with them and weed out the ones who aren’t.
Not everyone is built for greatness. Keselowski is, but he had to find who he can trust to go with him on his journey back to the top. After all, he left comfort to build this and he was going to do it the right way.
One person that he felt was valuable was Chris Buescher. He noticed that several years ago. So in the early portions of his new role with RFK, he felt like he had to snag him up for years to come.
“You know, I wanted Chris Buescher to drive the 21 Cup car about five years ago,” he said. “I thought that highly of him. There was a number of reasons why it didn’t come over, timing and so forth. But I thought that was a natural fit for him.
“I thought a lot of his talent then.
“I went to a Ford driving school with him somewhere around 2015, and I was blown away by his talent and his feel for the car. I just felt like he didn’t have the support system around him to be successful with the teams he was with.
“I kind of felt like he was a hidden free agent gem that wasn’t being scouted properly and felt that way for a handful of years. So yeah, the first thing — it was literally the first thing I did when I signed the papers at RFK.
“The next step after signing my papers was putting an offer in front of him to give him a contract extension. I thought he was somebody we could build around and get results, and today clearly shows that that was the case.”
Next step was giving Buescher everything that he needed to be successful. Saturday night was further proof on what he can do if given the right equipment. Keselowski feels that burden that he has to give Buescher what he needs to win because Buescher can win if given the right support.
Saturday night proved that.
But in the 28 races prior to that, it was a challenge. When 28 races go by and you’ve not made the playoffs, you’re not winning and you see people that were there a while going out the door and new people coming in, the burden starts to rise. Am I doing this right? Did I get in over my head? Do these people trust what I’m building here?
It’s easy for the ones looking up at Keselowski to say, we’ve done all this but the results aren’t coming. Then Saturday night hits and you see all that hard work rewarded. It’s gratification that yes, all this was worth it. Yes, I can lead you in the right direction. Yes, this is what it takes to be successful.
“I’m not tired. I’m driven,” said Keselowski. “I want to see this thing be successful. Today (Saturday night) is a clear sign that it can be successful. But it ain’t going to be successful sitting on our hands. You’ve got to grind it out. That’s a hell of a journey to grind it out.
“I’ll tell you, there’s days you look back and say, did I get better today, or did I get worse? And more often than not, you have to get worse to get better.
“That can be really frustrating. It can be letting go of someone who’s good because they’re not great, and that ain’t fun; I can tell you that. Then biding it out until you can find great.
“It can be tearing down the walls in the shop and having a mess everywhere and knowing that’s what needs to be done to be better in six months.
“It’s a lot of playing the long game and having confidence that we’re doing the right things, and that’s not easy because, like I said, anytime we make a change, I think it’s really natural — not just for our company but for any company, for everyone to go, okay, where is the instant result. There are no instant results.
“Every change, you don’t see a result for six to 12 months. That can be really painful because you start to lose people, and they start to not believe in you.
“This is a big win for us to kind of regain the confidence of — not just our partners and the external factors that we race, but our internals, as well. I’m excited for them and excited for that for our company.”
Saturday night was the race that Keselowski envisioned but this isn’t the end product. This is the type of night that can propel RFK Racing back. They had to watch 23XI Racing, Trackhouse and even Petty GMS Racing all become new teams, and all win this season. Now, they join that list.
“Oh yeah, I’m proud as hell (as a team owner),” Keselowski said. “Everybody has some level of ego and I’m not going to say I don’t have any ego, but it’s easy to get over ego when you see that.
“It’s certainly a good feeling. I’ve got to try to clear my emotions and memory out of not winning the race as a driver and working your butt off to do that and coming short of it.
“But also I’m trying to remember to be grateful because it’s super hard to win races in this sport even as a car owner. In that sense, a big moment for us.
“I know to you guys this is our first win. I would say the Duels felt more like our first win, but you get in all these qualifications of points races and exhibition races. I’ll tell you, I felt like that was our first win.
“But with respect to that, this is a different type of win. This is a legacy type of win. There’s some tracks that winning at is always great, don’t get me wrong, but there’s some tracks that winning at is just not as special as others, and Bristol is right up there at the top of being special. Big moment for us.
“It’s a big moment for him and a big moment for our company to be able to win races. It’s really so important at this level. You’re really not relevant if you can’t win races. If you’re not relevant, you can’t have sponsors. You can’t have sponsors, you can’t go to the racetrack every weekend. We need to win. We need to win for our partners.
“Fastenal is a key partner for us, and it’s good to see them rewarded for their loyalty to us with a big win at a big race.
“Just a lot to be proud of today, even though from the driver’s side I didn’t get what I wanted out of it, but certainly a huge night for us.”
Keselowski said though that the painful moments of building this team back to a winner was well worth it for moments like he saw this past weekend.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s painful, but anything in life worth doing is painful,” he said. “It’s a little bit like working out. I moved up a weight class here and I’ve got to build a lot more muscle and get better off the track as much as I have to on the track.
“There was a lot of room for growth within the company. We’ve been making major investments to try to get to where we can get this thing to where it can win, and when you make those investments, you want to get a result out of it, and it’s really important that you get those results when you do them.
“There’s been a little bit of a lag, and some of that — one of our biggest problems is there was a ton of supply chain issues that probably affected us as much as anyone else this year, or more, and we’re just now starting to realize some of those investments, and they’re paying off with results.”
So where do you go from here. It’s easy to get to victory lane and rest of your laurels. Keselowski isn’t one to let celebrations of a race win last too long. This isn’t their end destination. He wants more. He wants to become a weekly contender. But he thinks big too though, remember?
This is far from the final destination. He wants bigger. He wants more.
“Yeah, I mean, we want to get back to being at least a four-car team,” Keselowski said. “That’s been our goal all along. Before you can get to a four-car team, you’ve got to get to a three-car team. Before you can get to a three-car team, you have to be relevant as a two-car team.
“For us, again, relevancy is winning races, multiple races a year with both of your cars and competing for playoffs.
“Obviously we’re not in the playoffs with either of our cars, so we have more work to do. But our stated goal internally is to get back to being a four-car team. That’s not going to happen if you’re not winning races and you’re not relevant as a two-car team.
“This is a good step forward for us. We’ve got a long ways still to go. We need to be able to win multiple races a year. But before you can do that, you’ve got to win a first race. Not to take anything away from today.”
That’s long term, but short-term, Keselowski says that they have to maximize to their strengths and that he feels like they have some opportunities ahead to maybe snag another victory before the end of the season.
“You know, with Next Gen, somebody wins one week and runs 30th the next,” he said. “I’d like to sit here and tell you, yeah, we’re going next week to Texas and we’re going to lead every lap and win the race. But as you can tell, it’s not that simple.
“I think as a whole the Fords seem to be more competitive on the short tracks, so that’s probably part of our strength. The mile-and-a-halfs have been a struggle.
“I hope we can go to Texas and have a good run next week and think we’ll run really well at Talladega if we can not get wrecked. In that sense, it’s hard to say — it’s kind of one week at a time.
“I really like what we saw out of our cars at Martinsville in the spring and at our test, as well. Then Talladega, I probably have that one circled, as well. Not to say that there aren’t other tracks I feel really good about, but those two are probably at the top of our list.”