Can RFK maintain speed on the West Coast Swing?

Jack Roush along with drivers Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher celebrate their sweep of the Daytona Duels (Photo: Getty Images)

At one time, the NASCAR Cup Series teams led by Jack Roush were among the toughest and most competitive in the sport. To demonstrate that, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch won championships for the ‘Cat in the Hat’ in 2003 and 2004 respectively. Those efforts were then followed up by the organization placing all five of its teams in the ‘NASCAR Chase’ as it was called back in 2005.

Although the early 2000’s proved to be the high water mark, Roush Fenway Racing, as it came to be know later, remained a powerful force in the sport for the next several seasons. However, things have been in a decline over the past few years. As a matter of fact, the last win recorded by one of the Fords fielded out of the Roush shops came in 2017 and no serious threats to win a championship have been in the cards since even further back.

Now, though, new life appears to have been breathed into the company as 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski has joined the team as the driver of the No. 6 flagship car and as a co-owner along with Roush and Boston Red Sox principal John Henry. And that new partnership seems to have resulted in immediate improvement.

Keselowski and Chris Buescher, driver of the team’s No. 17 Ford, each won their respective Bluegreen Vacation Duel races on the Thursday night prior to the running of the 64th annual Daytona 500. The teammates followed that up by staying at or near the front of the pack for most of the day during Sunday’s main event. Ultimately after all of the late race crashing was through, Keselowski ended his day in the 9th position while Buescher had to settle for a 16th place result.

Keselowski demonstrated further his team’s strength by leading 67 of the 200 laps that make up the Daytona 500.

But this type of performance on the Super Speedways formerly known as restrictor plate tracks is not necessarily out of the norm for this organization. Their last two wins came in 2017 with driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. steering the No. 17 Ford into victory lane at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Super Speedway. But again, those two tracks have not been the problem.

Since those two Stenhouse victories in 2017, the Roush Fords have amassed 17 top-10 finishes on the two Super Speedways. And more, there have been other great runs negated for one reason or another.

Ryan Newman was leading the 2020 Daytona 500 on the last lap until a horrifying crash deprived him of a chance to win. Buescher was in contention late in the NASCAR Playoffs cutoff race at Daytona in 2021 and even crossed the finish line in second place. However, a post-race technical inspection revealed an infraction that disqualified that effort.

The real question for the newly rebranded Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing organization is whether or not they can carry the speed shown at Daytona into the remainder of the season on tracks other than the pack-racing facilities. The upcoming ‘West Coast Swing’ could very well provide some answers as to just how competitive these cars and drivers can be going into the heart of the NASCAR Cup Series schedule.

The first track up as the series heads west is the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. The last time a Roush car earned a top-10 on this D-shaped oval came all the way back in 2016 with Stenhouse scoring a fifth-place result. Keselowski has a solid history there as he picked up one win along with five top-5 and six top-10 finishes when he drove the No. 2 car for Team Penske.

Buescher has never scored a top-10 on the track located in southern California.

Following Auto Club will come the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the Phoenix Raceway. The last top-10 results for this organization in Vegas came when Buescher placed ninth in 2020 while Matt Kenseth earned a 7th as the last top-10 for Roush at Phoenix back in 2018.

But, of course, those statistics may have very little relevance as the sports heads into these races due to the fact that NASCAR and its teams are now using the new Next Gen race car. Throughout the testing process for this machine, drivers and crew chiefs have reported that there is almost a ‘night-and-day’ type difference between it and the previous Gen 6 ride. As a result, how good or bad a team may have been on particular tracks in the past might not matter very much.

Ultimately, the fact is that the Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing Fords were fast at Daytona. And no matter what the past performances may have been, this is a different organization now than it was one year ago. So, can Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher take that speed from Daytona and make it translate to Auto Club, Las Vegas and Phoenix?

We will know the answer to that question soon enough.

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Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.

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