By Dustin Albino

Through the first three NASCAR Cup Series races of the 2024 season, RFK Racing had little results to show for the progress the team has made over the past two years. Collectively, the organization had just one top-10 finish, which came in the second race of the season, when Chris Buescher squeaked out a ninth-place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

With both cars mired in the 20s in the regular season championship standings, Sunday‘s Shriners Children‘s 500 at Phoenix Raceway became increasingly important. Sure, winning at any point during the regular season can catapult a team into the playoffs, but just finding a rhythm to begin the season was needed. And throughout the weekend, both cars went in the right direction.

Both RFK drivers missed out on stage points in the opening stage at Phoenix. Per usual, the Nos. 6 and 17 Fords operated consistently with each other, as Keselowski raced to ninth in the second stage with Buescher right behind in 10th, which matched Buescher‘s best stage finish of the young season (second stage of Daytona 500).

Shortly after a restart during the final stage, John Hunter Nemechek bumped Joey Logano entering Turn 1, provoking a five-car wreck, ending the day of Logano, Corey LaJoie and Derek Kraus. Scott Graves, crew chief of the No. 17 car, called Buescher to pit road to top off with fuel. Not even a handful of laps into the next run, Denny Hamlin spun battling for the lead. The majority of the field pitted, other than the cars that had pitted on the previous caution. Keselowski was among a handful of drivers to take two tires.

With the final 92 laps going green to the finish, Buescher stretched his fuel mileage into a second-place finish. Keselowski drove from outside the top 10 to finish fourth. It’s the first top five finishes for both RFK cars in 2024.

“That’s huge,” Buescher said of his runner-up finish. “We’ve been able to lead races at any point in all three races leading up to this. We didn’t quite get there today.

“This is a good try. We had a rough go last week. This was good to get everybody back to prove that we’re in this together and we’re going to win one of these things as a team. That was almost a win today. We were close in a way, but I couldn’t even see [Christopher Bell]. That was going to be a tough one to battle for a win.”

Keselowski cracked the top five in the final rundown for the first time since last fall at Las Vegas.

“It was a good, solid day for us,” Keselowski said. “We want to win these races, but we didn‘t have anywhere near the speed [that Bell] did — I don’t know if anybody did, to be quite honest. We put ourselves in good position with a good pit call and a great restart at the end and we just tried to execute. The potential is there. We are just one step away and we are going to keep working on it until we get there.”

For the first time in series history, two superspeedway races kicked off a season. Keselowski, who made some enemies during Speedweeks in Daytona between the the second Bluegreen Vacations Duel race and Daytona 500, was caught up in a 23-car pileup late in the Great American Race. That ended his chance of finally breaking through to win the sport’s biggest race. Buescher was caught up in the same incident, but he salvaged an 18th-place finish.

At Atlanta, Keselowski was making progress, but got loose and lost control of his car, resulting in another 33rd-place finish. Of the 35 drivers that competed in the first two races of the season, just Keselowski had two DNFs.

Last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Keselowski searched for speed and ended the race in 13th, the highest he ran all day. Buescher was contending inside the top 10, when the No. 17 car lost a right-front wheel as the lug nut flew off. Buescher had three pit-crew members suspended for two races, though the team appealed the penalty and those team members were allowed to pit the No. 17 car at Phoenix.

The series heads to Bristol Motor Speedway, which was the site of RFK’s first triumph as a rebranded team in the fall of 2022 with Buescher. Keselowski also has a trio of wins at Bristol, with the most recent victory coming in 2020.

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