By Jacob Seelman, Special Contributor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – After a dominant day in which RFK Racing’s two cars combined to lead nearly half of the 65th Daytona 500, the proverbial wheels fell off in the final laps of the Great American Race.
Team co-owner Brad Keselowski and his wingman, Texan Chris Buescher, were out front for 74 of the 200 laps Sunday at Daytona Int’l Speedway. Keselowski led six times for a race-high 42 circuits, while Buescher found the top spot five times in his own right for 32 trips around the 2.5-mile tri-oval.
As the sand ticked down in the hourglass, both men were in prime position to potentially end their career winless droughts in the Daytona 500. Keselowski was hunting the Harley J. Earl Trophy for the 14th time, while Buescher was making his eighth Daytona 500 appearance.
With 10 laps left, the pair got together in the draft and rocketed to the top two positions, with Keselowski retaking command on lap 190 and he and Buescher largely controlling the draft for the next seven circuits.
However, when Richard Childress Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon decided to make their move forward, it began to unravel the best-laid plans of both Keselowski and Buescher.
Busch and Dillon got the No. 6 and No. 17 Fords separated enough on lap 197 that the duo faded back into the pack, quickly losing touch with a chance at victory before a spin by Daniel Suarez sent the race past its scheduled distance and into the first of two overtime attempts.
From there, the RFK duo could never quite get connected again to draft back into contention.
Ultimately, Buescher found a way to finish fourth, while Keselowski was swept up in the final-lap crash that ended the race under caution in double overtime. The 2012 Cup Series champion was scored 22nd.
It was a heartbreaking end to a day where everything seemed to be in Keselowski, Buescher and RFK’s favor. After being cleared from the infield care center, Keselowski moved swiftly to a waiting golf cart, declined to speak to reporters, and drove off to his motorhome in the wake of another ‘500’ defeat.
Buescher, meanwhile, reflected on his final-lap rally as a major case of “what could have been” for the entire organization.
“At the end of the day, it’s a disappointment, for sure,” said Buescher of failing to win the Daytona 500. “We were up front a lot of the day between both of our cars and there is a ton to be proud of, but it’s still tough. I can’t thank everyone back at RFK enough. The Fastenal Mustang was quick, and I love that. We just got a little behind there in the first overtime and survived the next one.
“Somehow, we made it through all of that [last-lap chaos] and picked up all kinds of spots. Ultimately even getting back to fourth, it should feel good, but I feel like we had more in us today,” Buescher added. “We just weren’t able to hoist that trophy up and it stinks.”
Anyone who comes to Daytona for the Great American Race knows that the fastest driver and car don’t always end up in victory lane at the end of the day.
In RFK Racing’s case, that statement rung very true, and left a sour taste in its co-owner’s mouth as he stalked off silently into the Florida night.