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May 13, 2024

Brad Keselowski, No. 6 pit crew fly the flag after streak-snapping triumph: ‘It’s a heck of a ride’

DARLINGTON, S.C. — The request came out over the team radio shortly after the checkered flag flew on a dramatic day at Darlington Raceway. A car with the No. 6 — team owner Jack Roush’s flagship — had just won a NASCAR Cup Series race for the first time in nearly 13 years, but it required a finishing touch: Brad Keselowski was going to need that American flag.

The traditional punctuation mark to a Keselowski victory had been out of sight in a sometimes agonizing three-plus-year drought, but not forgotten. RFK Racing mechanic Jon Ellis grabbed it from the pit area — still in the plastic wrapping and mothballed over the course of a 110-race winless streak, the longest of his Cup Series career — and No. 6 jackman Dustin Lineback brought it to the waiting car on the frontstretch.

With Old Glory properly unfurled for Keselowski’s post-race burnout, the victory meant everything for the 40-year-old veteran driver/owner, the team that he’s brought back to prominence and the manufacturer that’s been part of the organization’s fabric from the outset.

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Keselowski roared to victory in Sunday’s Goodyear 400 with an opportunistic leap to the top spot. 23XI Racing’s Tyler Reddick and fellow RFK Racing driver Chris Buescher plummeted from contention after their heated contest for the lead turned especially frantic in the closing laps, ending in a pit-road squabble. But the triumph was no fluke, not with Keselowski running among the top two or three for the majority of the sun-baked South Carolina afternoon, and not with the No. 6 group’s recent upturn in performance.

Keselowski had won 35 times on the Cup Series circuit before Sunday, almost all of those victories delivered during his 12-year tenure with team owner Roger Penske. Sunday’s triumph, his 36th, was the first with his name above the company’s door and not just the driver’s.

“It’s a heck of a ride,” said Keselowski, who joined forces with the Roush Fenway group for a rebrand to RFK Racing after the 2021 season. “So much has changed over the last three years from when I walked in the door, and I see just a group that keeps getting stronger. It’s tough because I feel like there’s been a lot of two steps forwards, one step back, and you keep doing those. Everybody kind of looks at it like, we just took these two steps forward, why are we taking another step back, and it leads to the next gain.

“We took a pretty big step back over the offseason. It was with a lot of intentionality in a couple critical categories. We paid for that dearly to start the year and kind of lost some performance. But it was in the name of being able to do this right here: Win races honest and be competitive, and the two steps forward are just now being realized. It never comes as quick as you want it to. It’s a tedious, painful process that takes a deep grind at all levels, whether that’s the driver level, the organizational level, the pit crew level. But that grind is worth it when you have moments like this. I surely appreciate it.”

The latest two-step-forward jump was celebrated in Darlington’s cozy Victory Lane. Jack Roush, the 82-year-old team founder, had been there many times over before Sunday — five times in the Cup Series, and 15 in Xfinity competition — but not since 2009. But there was also Doug Yates — the other half of the Roush Yates Engines consortium that supplies Ford’s power plants — making sure his colleagues, partners and well-wishers all got high-fives.

The start of the year had been a rough one for the automaker, which got off to what Yates called a “well-publicized” 0-for-12 drought with the new Mustang Dark Horse model for Cup competition. Buescher was just one one-thousandth of a second away from breaking that streak last weekend in a photo finish at Kansas Speedway. Sunday, Keselowski gave Yates reason to celebrate at a track where his father, Hall of Famer and engine-building maestro Robert Yates, savored each win.

“This never gets old, coming to Victory Lane,” Yates told, adding that Sunday’s effort had him optimistic for Ford’s prospects for the rest of the spring into the summer months. “This is what it’s all about, and one of our favorite race tracks. My dad loved racing here, and we’re carrying that on today.”

A sentimental helping hand for Brad Keselowski's No. 6 Ford in Victory Lane.
Alejandro Alvarez |

Buescher arrived later, having cooled off somewhat after his post-race confrontation with Reddick. After a visit with his teammate and boss, Buescher — who had taken the laurels for each of the four previous victories under the RFK banner — fist-bumped with each member of the No. 6 crew that had contributed to Sunday’s triumph.

Reddick’s pole-starting No. 45 Toyota was frequently the first car off pit road during Sunday’s 400-miler, relying on the heavy advantage of selecting the first pit stall nearest the pit-lane exit. But the No. 6 crew held its ground under the difficult circumstances, keeping Keselowski in the hunt.

Darlington has long been described as a driver’s race track for its everlasting reputation as treacherous and challenging, and the on-track showdown among Keselowski, Reddick and Buescher down the stretch was the stuff of “Too Tough to Tame” legend. The battling on pit road was every bit as demanding for the over-the-wall personnel.

“That’s why it’s so special. Darlington is the hardest to pit, there’s sand everywhere, the pit road’s uneven — it’s like playing golf in the rough — but we ran all eights today,” said Lineback, in his third season at RFK, noting the No. 6 crew’s ability to routinely crack the nine-second barrier Sunday. “We were pitting P1 on the average, and it’s hard to beat the 45 when they’re in pit stall 1, and they had a great day. So it’s like two juggernauts going at it — a pair of kings versus a pair of kings. But hey, we did what we had to do, and we ran eight-second stops and that’s our goal, and that was the best day we’ve ever had on pit road.

“To still come out with a win, I believe the last time (off pit road) they got us by a nose and you know it can be frustrating to not win off pit road, but pit stall 1 is huge, and that’s why qualifying is very, very important. But hey, you’ve got to be there at the end, and that’s what we did to get the win.”

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In agreement was Keselowski, who perched on the door of his No. 6 Ford for photos with his crew and the Goodyear 400 trophy.

“The 6 team is one of the best pit crews on pit road. Really proud of them today. They were just flawless, put us in position there,” Keselowski said. “We didn’t have the No. 1 pit stall, and that No. 1 pit stall was worth a solid one to two positions every time. We kept losing positions, but it wasn’t because of them. The pit stops were phenomenal. They just continued to deliver. It would have been easy for them to give up, too. It’s been a hard couple years for them, as well. But they keep putting the work in. They’re energized. They just grind it out. They’re all experienced, total professionals. I feel super lucky to have them.”

That crew got a sentimental helping hand Sunday, as Keselowski’s daughters — Scarlett and Autumn — helped to push the No. 6 Ford back toward the Cup Series garage. Paige Keselowski, their mother, joyfully filmed the girls’ handiwork with her phone as a special Mother’s Day treat.

Keselowski had noted even before Saturday’s qualifying how bullish he was about RFK’s prospects in the coming weeks, and sure enough, the patriarch is now back in the victory column for the first time since April 2021. Keselowski has long been regarded as a reliable contender for multiple-win seasons for the bulk of his Cup Series career, and that return to form might not be far off.

Maybe best to keep the American flag handy in the No. 6 pit box.

“It has been a long time coming. It’s honestly, it’s hard to explain. It brings tears to all of our eyes, and to finally get it done, it’s everything,” Lineback said. “This is probably the biggest win in my career, and I’ve had Daytona 500 wins, I’ve won championships. But with this group, I know how hard we work, how hard Brad’s worked, and just to see it come together, it’s everything. And it’s on Mother’s Day, so for my mom to see it and watch it, it’s very special and it’s such a blessing.”

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