Dr. Diandra: RFK Racing by the numbers

·7 min read

Dominance — whether by manufacturers, owners or drivers — waxes and wanes with time. The racing team now known as RFK Racing is a prime example. So let’s look at RFK Racing by the numbers.

The team (then called Roush Racing) ran its first race in 1998. It became a NASCAR powerhouse by strategically pooling data from multiple cars and sharing resources.

Roush remains the only organization to have fielded five full-time Cup-level cars — and the only company to place five cars in the championship playoff system.

In 2010, NASCAR limited each owner to no more than four Cup Series teams to prevent a small number of very large companies from dominating the series.

Roush cut one car in 2010 to meet the mandate, and another in 2011. By 2017, the company was fielding only two cars.

Roush merged with Fenway Sports Group in 2007 to become Roush Fenway Racing, and then transitioned to RFK racing last year when Brad Keselowski became driver and part-owner.

Although RFK has won 137 races and 90 poles, the graph below shows its decline in recent years. The team hasn’t won a race since 2017, when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had his career-best Cup season with wins at Talladega and Daytona.

A vertical bar chart showing the wins of Roush/Roush-Fenway/RFK racing from 1998 to the present
A vertical bar chart showing the wins of Roush/Roush-Fenway/RFK racing from 1998 to the present

RFK in 2022

Brad Keselowski is a Cup Series champion with 35 wins over 472 races. Chris Buescher, in his seventh full-time Cup Series season, has one win.

The Next Gen car was intended to minimize the advantages dominant teams had built up. Teams like Trackhouse Racing seized on that promise, earning wins and top-10 finishes.

RFK’s season started out promising, with both drivers winning their Daytona Duels. Things went downhill from there.

Keselowski has yet to post a top-5 finish and has only three top 10s. His streak of winning at least one race each season since 2011 is in jeopardy. On a more positive note, he only has two DNFs in a year with a 55.6% increase in cars failing to finish races.

Two graphs showing Brad Keselowski's rank (upper graph, scatter) and finishes (lower graph, bar)
Two graphs showing Brad Keselowski's rank (upper graph, scatter) and finishes (lower graph, bar)

A 100-point penalty assessed after the team modified a single-supplier part caused a drop in Keselowski’s ranking from which he has not recovered. He stands 28th in points.

Keselowski has been involved in 10 caution-causing accidents and one spin, which puts him fifth for most accidents, spins and stalls. Those 11 incidents, however, happened in only seven races: He had two incidents in each of four different races.

While the veteran driver has led 73 laps this season, 67 of those laps were in the Daytona 500. He’s led only 4 since. The team has incurred six in-race penalties and had to start two races from the back due to unapproved adjustments.

Buescher ranks 23rd with one top-five and six top-10 finishes. He had four DNFs and missed one race due to COVID concerns. His best finish this year is a second at Sonoma.

Two graphs showing Chris Buescher's rank (upper graph, scatter) and finishes (lower graph, bar)
Two graphs showing Chris Buescher's rank (upper graph, scatter) and finishes (lower graph, bar)

Buescher has gotten more attention for bad luck this season than for his racing. He was the first driver to roll the Next Gen car and remained in his car during a spectacular fire at the Indianapolis road course. After the fire was put out, Buescher drove the car to a 10th-place finish.

Both RFK drivers are among the stronger closers. Keselowski has a net gain of 20  in the final 10% of races this season, while Buescher has 24.

Is speed the problem?

Even after Kevin Harvick’s win at Michigan last week, Ford has the fewest wins (five) of any manufacturer in the Cup Series. But RFK racing lags in speed, even among Fords.

The graph below compares the average starting positions of the top-10-ranked Ford drivers. Buescher is fifth and Keselowski 10th. Chevrolet’s Kyle Larson holds the top spot with an average starting position of 9.00.

A horizontal scatter chart comparing the qualifying of Ford teams
A horizontal scatter chart comparing the qualifying of Ford teams

A second measure of speed is a driver’s green-flag speed ranking from loop data. Keselowski and Buescher have each demonstrated top-10-ranked green flag speed this year.

The parenthetical numbers in the table below indicate the driver’s rank at each track.

A table showing the tracks at which RFK drivers have top-10-ranked speed
A table showing the tracks at which RFK drivers have top-10-ranked speed

Buescher ranks top-10 at eight tracks and Keselowski at three. All three of Keselowski’s best tracks are also tracks where Buescher did well. Richmond is one of those tracks, offering a glimmer of hope for this weekend.

At the other end, each driver has races at which they were out of the top-25 in green-flag speed.

A table showing the tracks at which RFK drivers have below 25-ranked speed
A table showing the tracks at which RFK drivers have below 25-ranked speed

Bear with me on the next graph: It looks complex, but — I promise — it’s simple to unravel.

Single numbers, like averages or medians, provide a limited amount of information about a driver’s performance. Boxplots consolidate information about every race a driver’s run in a season.

A boxplot comparing the green-flag-speed ranking of Ford drivers
A boxplot comparing the green-flag-speed ranking of Ford drivers

Here’s the secret code:

  • If you just want the basics, focus on the red lines on each bar. They represent the driver’s median rank over all 23 races. In half the races, the driver ranked lower than the median in green-flag speed, and ranked higher than the median in the other half. I’ve arranged the drivers in order of median rank from best to worst going left to right.

  • Each driver’s bar shows the rankings for the middle 50% of races — those races that are most representative of the driver’s year.

    • A short bar tells you the driver is consistent. Ryan Blaney ranked between fourth and 12th in green-flag speed in half the races this year.

    • A longer bar means they’re less consistent. Buescher’s bar ranges from eight to 20.

  • The “whiskers” — the lines coming from each end of the box — mark the best and worst rankings. These are the best and worst 50% of each driver’s races.

Those green diamonds are races in which the ranking was so different from the driver’s usual range that statistics make it necessary to call our attention to it.

Ryan Blaney, for example, had green-flag speed rankings from 1 to 20 in 22 races. The ranking of 25 (at Loudon) was so far off that we should view it as an anomaly.

The first thing this graph tells us about RFK is that while the RFK drivers aren’t leading the Fords in green-flag speed, they’re also not at the tail end.

  • Buescher is one of only four Ford drivers (with Blaney, Harvick and Logano) to have ranked first in green-flag speed at a race.

  • Buescher’s median green-flag speed rank is 18 for the season, sixth among Ford drivers.

  • Buescher’s bar extends much further down than up. He has the same number of races in which he ranked from 18 to 21 (3 positions) as he does 18 to eight (10 positions).

As for Keselowski:

  • His median green-flag speed rank is 20, eighth out of the top-10 Ford drivers.

  • His bar is short, which means he’s consistent. The problem is that he is consistently ranked around 20.

  • The most telling aspect of the graph is that all three of Keselowski’s top-10 rankings are statistical outliers. You can only see two of the three points because he ranked seventh twice.

While the team has shown speed, it hasn’t been enough speed, or the speed hasn’t been consistent.

The fact that Buescher outperforms Keselowski in most metrics isn’t really surprising. Two of the most disruptive events in a person’s life are the death of a loved one and a job change. The Keselowski family lost its patriarch in December 2021, and more than one race-proven driver has struggled in the first year with a new team.

In this year of surprises, a win by Keselowski or Buescher is not entirely out of the question — especially if one of them has the chance to be a spoiler in Daytona.

Read more about NASCAR

Richmond Raceway Truck results: Chandler Smith wins Kyle Larson wins pole for NASCAR Cup race at Richmond Raceway Christopher Bell and Ross Chastain share similar view of their crash at Michigan

Dr. Diandra: RFK Racing by the numbers originally appeared on NBCSports.com