CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — One of the best things to happen to rebranded RFK Racing came exactly one year ago when NASCAR found an illegal part on Brad Keselowski’s car.
The illegal modification was found following just the fifth race of Keselowski’s first season as part owner of the once-proud organization founded by Jack Roush. The ensuing penalty was crippling and essentially ended Keselowski’s championship chances with 31 races remaining in the season.
Deep down, Keselowski recognized RFK wasn’t good enough for the 2012 Cup champion to continue his run of eight consecutive playoff appearances. The penalty was the wakeup call the entire organization needed to make a massive cultural shift.
“We deserved that penalty, and that penalty made us better,” Keselowski told The Associated Press. “It challenged everybody within the company to recognize ‘Hey, we can’t keep doing business the way we we’re doing it. We’re not getting results and now we’ve got all this drama to deal with.’
“I look back at it now 12 months later and think ‘That was the best thing that happened to us.’ It forced us to to change how we act, forced people to straighten up, forced us to look internally rather than externally at our problems and really fix them. We’ve changed a lot of the way we do business as a company because of that.”
And so a full year later, Keselowski nearly found himself in victory lane Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He was passed on the final lap by former Team Penske teammate Joey Logano for the win and settled for second — his best finish in 46 races dating back to his final days with Penske in 2021. His last victory was with Penske on April 25, 2021 at Talladega.
The progress has been slow but building since Keselowski entered the organization founded by Roush and formerly known as Roush Fenway Racing. Chris Buescher won at Bristol last September to end a 223-race losing streak for the organization, and the speed in the RFK Fords had dramatically improved by the end of the year.
But then came the season-opening exhibition race at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in February and, after what Keselowski thought was “an amazing offseason for our organization,” neither he nor Buescher advanced into the main event. Both RFK drivers were relegated to spectators at a NASCAR showcase event.
“That was an event where leadership probably got a lift from the rank and file,” Steve Newmark, President of RFK, told AP. “When we got back to the shop, the people were unfazed by it. I was despondent. But the folks here were like, ‘That race is an aberration, it’s unique, and we missed it. But we had so much speed the second half of the season, we have continued to build on that, we have integrated new tools.’ So there was still positive vibes across the board, despite the pockets of us who were really upset.”
Since missing the Clash, RFK has shown a notable pickup in performance.
Keselowski, who led laps in only six races last year, has led laps in all five races so far this season and scored stage points in eight of 10 stages. He heads to Circuit of the Americas in Austin this weekend ranked fifth in the Cup standings.
Buescher has led in two races and has run 62.4% of the laps this season inside the top 15 compared to 39.9% last year. He’s 13th in the standings and a solid contender to win Sunday on the first road course race of the season.
“I’m not ashamed to say that Chris is a better road racer than I am,” Keselowski said. “He absolutely has a shot to win this week.”
There have also been fundamental changes inside the physical race shop, where after 12 years of racing for perfectionist Roger Penske, Keselowski wanted immediate change. First it was fresh paint. Some 16 months later, Keselowski says the building has undergone “a complete digital transformation.”
“When I walked in for the first time, it looked like a relic to the 1970s. It was dark. It was dingy. You couldn’t find a computer. There were coffee pots next to parts,” Keselowski told AP. “I said ’Oh my gosh, we’re not doing things like this anymore. We have gutted every single area in that building and redone it to reflect both a digital transformation and a cultural transformation.”
To illustrate his point, Keselowski on Tuesday texted AP an essay called “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” that explains how technology has grown from the 1st revolution of “mechanization, steam and water power” to the 4th revolution of “cyber physical systems.”
RFK has also overhauled its marketing and business development approaches which has led to expanded partnerships with Castrol and King’s Hawaiian, as well as renewals with sponsors Fastenal, Fifth Third Bank and Wyndham Rewards. RFK has this year added new partners Esperion Therapeutics, Solomon Plumbing, Solo Stove, Pala Casino and Elk Grove Village.
Keselowski expects at least one of the two RFK Fords to make the playoffs this year, but also believes both he and Buescher will win races and return Roush’s organization to a contender. It’s why he left the comforts of Penske to take on a larger role with another team — even if it meant there would be a long rebuilding process.
“I wouldn’t say I ever had regrets, but there was some self-doubt last year and a lot of whining,” Keselowski said. “But I’ll tell you what, my wife can keep me humble. Everytime I’d whine about how things were going, she reminded me, ‘You picked this. This is what you wanted.’ And she’s right.”
AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/apf-AutoRacing and https://twitter.com/AP