Can Keselowski become the fourth non-Playoff winner?

Can Keselowski become the fourth non-Playoff winner?
HHP/ChrisOwens

Brad Keselowski would like to keep the non-Playoff driver victory party rolling in the postseason.

Keselowski took the first step in accomplishing that task by winning the pole for Sunday’s Autotrader Echo Park Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway with a lap at 188.990 mph (28.573 sec.). 

The 18th pole of his career marks the first time the 38-year-old racer posted the top qualifying speed since becoming a partner of Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing.

“That was a heck of a lap,” Keselowski said. “I was proud to show my speed and be starting on the front row on pole. This is a tough track to qualify at because the speeds are so high and the track is so slick and hot. 

“We were able to put a lap together. (turns) 3 and 4 was one of those gutsy laps where you hold it wide open through there and hope it sticks. It was really close, but we made it through. That was probably the difference maker. I haven’t gone back and seen all the data, but I just committed to running through it wide open and it made it.”

Keselowski topped former teammate Joey Logano by just 0.028 seconds for his second pole at the 1.5-mile track. He showed tremendous potential last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, where he led 109 laps before a tire blew with  87 laps remaining. As a bittersweet consolation prize, Keselowski’s teammate, Chris Buescher, won the Night Race—the first victory since the company was rebranded RFK Racing. 

The Ford team picked up additional momentum this week following a two-day test at another intermediate track Homestead-Miami Speedway. When the No. 6 crew unloaded in Fort Worth, Keselowski didn’t have the speed needed to compete. But after a couple of adjustments, the flagship RFK team went to the top of the board.
 
“We had a great test in Miami here this week and learned a lot and we applied some of that here to what we have today and got some results from it,” Keselowski said. “It is a super exciting time for me and for our company here at RFK with a lot of the progress we have made over the last few months and now it is actually starting to show up. 

“It has been a painful journey, but a good one. I am proud of our lap. It didn’t come unearned, but we have a long way to go for 500 miles here in Texas.”

Fords captured three of the top-five qualifying spots. In addition to Keselowski and Logano, the Chevrolets of William Byron and Tyler Reddick posted the third and fourth fastest laps with Michael McDowell rounding out the top five. Denny Hamlin, who rolls off eighth on Sunday, was the only Toyota driver to crack the top 10.

The fastest rookie was Austin Cindric with the 11th-best qualifying lap. What does he attribute to three non-Playoff drivers winning the first three races and earning two of the first four poles?

“I guess hungry, FOMO (fear of missing out) maybe,” Cindric said. “I don't know, but it's a deep field. Been proven it all year and obviously still proven in the playoffs where everybody putting their all into it.”

RFK’s “all” is finally starting to pay off. Buescher’s pole at Dover was his first in 233-career attempts. Although he was first recruited by Roush in 2011 and went on to win the 2015 Xfinity championship, the Bristol win was his first in the No. 17 Cup car since rejoining the fold in 2020. 

Buescher has already exceeded his 2022 year-end stats for top fives (three), top 10s (nine) and laps led (193) in just 28 starts.

Keselowski, however, is still searching for his first top five of the season. The last time he went this long without a top-five result was his rookie season in 2010. No one expected the 2012 Cup champ to pick up where he left off at Team Penske, but his hopes were certainly dashed early in the season when the No. 6 crew was assessed a 100-point, $100,000 penalty for unapproved modifications to the car at Atlanta. NASCAR suspended crew chief Matt McCall for four weeks. 

Without a win in the regular season, Keselowski didn’t stand a chance of making the Playoffs. He’s currently 25th in the standings. But Keselowski’s 109 laps led at Bristol exceeded his total laps led in the previous 28 races. NASCAR’s ability to even the playing field with the new car has paid dividends for teams such as RFK—at least for now.

“There is more parity now in some ways than ever before,” Keselowski said. “Now the fight is for who is going to get to test at a track. You are looking for any advantage you can get. Now the fights are in different places. They are with pit road stuff, not that we didn’t fight on pit road before. They are in meetings where we argue over who gets to test where. Those things now are everything. 

“The parity is certainly a part of it but then there is a lot of OEM fights. That is really big right now. Whoever gets the most resources from their OEM has a huge advantage. So that stack of the deck is really important as we look to the future. The game is changing. The game is changing not just because of the Next Gen car but all the rules around it. Whether it is limited practice sessions or the single lug nut or the way that the balance of power is really shifted to the OEM’s here with a number of the rules. We are adapting in real-time.”

Whoever adapts the fastest with the fewest issues will remain in the hunt. RFK plans to take advantage of the current landscape. 

But a win on Sunday could be a game-changer for the No. 6 team. Jack Roush's teams haven’t won multiple races since 2017. Roush teams haven’t won consecutive races since Carl Edwards closed out the 2010 season with victories at Phoenix and Homestead. After 26 starts in the Lone Star State, Keselowski has six top fives and 11 top 10s, but he’s still looking for his first win.

“Obviously, this is a really tough, grueling race,” Keselowski said. “I have led a lot of laps here and been in a position to win this race before but it hasn’t come together. 

“Hopefully, tomorrow will be the day. It's certainly a great spot to start from.”
 

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