BRISTOL, Tenn. — Before Saturday night’s victory by Chris Buescher at Bristol Motor Speedway, it had been 191 races since RFK Racing last went to Victory Lane in the NASCAR Cup Series.
That victory came at Daytona International Speedway in 2017, when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. drove the No. 17 to victory.
A lot has changed since then. For one, when Stenhouse won in 2017 the team was known as Roush Fenway Racing. Secondly, Stenhouse has long since departed the team and now drives for JTG Daugherty Racing.
Perhaps most importantly, the biggest change since RFK Racing last visited Victory Lane in 2017 is the addition of Brad Keselowski as both a driver and co-owner of the team.
“I’ve had a lot of teammates through my Cup career that have been passionate and put in a lot of effort, but none like Brad,” said Buescher. “To see his passion and the amount of effort that he puts in each and every weekend, it just drives everybody to put in all the effort we possibly can to get to right here, right, to be sitting here after a race and celebrating.”
Keselowski brought with him a new mindset and the goal of turning RFK Racing back into the team that dominated the NASCAR Cup Series during the 1990s and 2000s with drivers like Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards.
While Buescher’s victory in the Bass Pro Shops Night Race Saturday evening doesn’t mean RFK Racing is back at that level, Keselowski believes it’s a major step forward for the entire program.
“It’s a big moment for him and a big moment for our company to be able to win races,” said Keselowski. “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 race track every weekend. We need to win.”
The victory by Buescher marked the 138th for the organization that entered the NASCAR Cup Series in 1988, when Mark Martin piloted the team’s flagship No. 6 for the first time.
That doesn’t take into account RFK Racing’s sweep of the of Bluegreen Vacations Duels in February at Daytona International Speedway, which were non-points events.
The victory was Buescher’s first for RFK Racing and his first since his maiden triumph in 2016 at Pocono Raceway when he drove for Front Row Motorsports. It also came at one of his favorite race tracks.
“This is the one, the one we’ve been looking forward to for a really long time, and it’s just a special place,” Buescher said of Bristol. “It’s unlike anywhere else we go.”
Keselowski called Buescher’s victory a “legacy win,” noting that not just any driver can walk into Bristol Motor Speedway and win the Bass Pro Shops Night Race. He said that speaks to the growth Buescher has shown throughout the season.
“The Bristol Night Race is a race that champions win, and I think the growth that he’s shown this year shows that he can be just that,” Keselowski said.
Statistically, Buescher flexed his muscle Saturday night. He led a race-high 169 laps, a career-best for the for the 29-year-old from Prosper, Texas. On top of that, he outran five playoff contenders in Chase Elliott, William Byron, Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson and Ross Chastain, who finished second through sixth.
Buescher’s victory provided Keselowski with a bit of extra gratification since he made a point to sign Buescher to a contract extension immediately after he became a co-owner of RFK Racing.
“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,” Keselowski said. “So yeah, the first thing — it was literally the first thing I did when I signed the papers at RFK (was to sign Buescher to an extension).
“I thought he was somebody we could build around and get results, and today clearly shows that that was the case.”
Keselowski made it clear that despite the impressive performance by RFK Racing Saturday night, which included Keselowski leading 109 laps before a flat tire took him out of the race lead late in the event, there is still a lot of work left to do to get the team back to where he believes it should to be.
“We want to get back to being at least a four-car team. That’s been our goal all along,” said Keselowski. “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 way still to go.”