Though Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney have NASCAR nation on their shoulders as they fight for top-10 finishes on a weekly basis and their respective spots in the Sprint Cup Series Chase, there is one other 2016 rookie fighting for results every Sunday.
Chris Buescher is just over four months removed from lifting NASCAR’s second-most prestigious trophy with an XFINITY Series championship in 2015, and he is now spending his Saturdays prepping for the big races on Sunday.
Joining the one-time Sprint Cup winning organization of Front Row Motorsports in 2016, it stands as familiar ground for the 23-year-old Texan as he made six starts in the No. 34 Ford while David Ragan was tapped to drive the Nos. 18 and 55 Toyotas on a temporary basis last season.
With a full-time ride in the country’s largest motorsport, Buescher grabbed a season-high finish of 26th at Las Vegas as he sits 36th in driver points following Martinsville Speedway,
Frontstretch sat down with Buescher to discuss his rookie campaign thus far, his thoughts on his fellow and familiar rookies and all the other stuff that comes with a Sprint Cup Series ride.
Zach Catanzareti, Frontstretch: What is it like for you to be driving on such a legendary track like Martinsville?
Chris Buescher: This is a very fun place. Very unique place in its own. It’s actually my second race here. I did get to run this race last year when we subbed for David Ragan. It’s a tough race. It can be very frustrating at points, but it is a fun place and it reminds us of that short track racing that we did a lot just a couple years ago coming up.
Catanzareti: Have you ever seen any similarities with this track compared to any other short tracks you’ve done before?
Buescher: Not much. I’d say there is a little bit of a similarity to, maybe, like a Madison, Wisconsin. Just as far as the shape and how slow the corners are. But Madison has more banking, the asphalt is a lot rougher. Really, there’s not much you can compare this place to.
Catanzareti: Now you have one year in the books since your last race here. Nine more Cup starts, an XFINITY championship since then. How much is your mental approach different from today versus one year ago?
Buescher: There is a little higher expectation today. Last year it was a fill-in, hardly any experience and just try and make the best of it. Now this – we are all trying to make the best of it – but I feel like we need to go out here and perform a little bit better. Step it up, have a little cleaner race trying not to get much damage at least early. Be able to race all the way through until the end.
That’s the hard part here really, just staying out of trouble and being there after 500 laps.
Catanzareti: Your first season here in Sprint Cup. Any surprises or anything that has stood out to you that maybe you didn’t expect coming in?
Buescher: I wouldn’t say any real surprises. I’ve been happy with the results of some things like the new low-downforce package I really like. I like the feel of that – I think most people do. I like that we get a little more time to race and to adjust.
Just a handful of things. It’s some things to get used to. When we go run the [Coca-Cola] 600 in Charlotte, I’m sure Ill be surprised at how far along halfway is. But so far everything has been pretty much what we expected. Just trying to work on it each and every week to get a little bit better.
Catanzareti: Do you think XFINITY has prepped you for this? Or do you think there are things in Sprint Cup you can only learn once you get here?
Buescher: There are definitely things that will only apply in a Cup car. But, the XFINITY car is definitely the best prep that we have. It’s definitely the closest thing to a Cup car. A little bit less power, different aero package, different ride-height rules, just to name a few. That’s the big changes.
The level of competition is really high here and the Cup cars drive like their own animal. Seat time is the best way to learn them and to get better in them.
Catanzareti: You talked about the power of the cars. Are they seriously more aggressive to drive?
Buescher: Yeah, definitely. They put a lot more power down on the ground. Fortunately, I never got to race with the full power they had just a few years ago. I did get a test though and I had a blast with that much power. But this is still a lot of fun.
We feel like you go to a lot of racetracks in the XFINITY Series and they’re momentum tracks and you just have to keep them rolling. I feel like you have more forgiveness with [Cup cars]. You can slow down in the center a little bit more and you have the power to you back up to speed.
Catanzareti: Talk about working with somebody like Landon Cassill. He’s been in the Cup Series for a while now but he’s new to the team. Are there any similarities with you two both being new or are you learning a lot from him this season?
Buescher: I really like Landon. He’s been a really good teammate. He’s been different from teammates I’ve had in the past. He likes to talk a lot, like to really digest a lot of information. It helps me think about a lot of things that I typically wouldn’t. It goes really deep in the thought trying to figure out what we need to do to get better. I think that is going to help our whole organization.
Catanzareti: You’re coming off a career-best qualifying effort in Fontana. That’s usually been a good track to you. Do you call those mini victories? And do those mini victories help a smaller team week to week?
Buescher: We have runs like that where we have speed at the racetrack. It’s great for the whole team. Fontana was a good track last year but it was a great track this year, too. We didn’t have the finish to show for it but Landon definitely did and the [No.] 38 guys. They had a really solid run there and had great long-run speed all day.
So there’s a lot of promise in it. I mean, we had great speed, too. With the tire going down, we were a couple laps down and could never get back. When we look at things to shoot for, that was not the result that we wanted, but it is definitely a step in the right direction and a big gain for us.
Catanzareti: Moving onto the Rookie of the Year side. You are also sharing the spotlight with Chase Elliott. You shared it with him in the XFINITY Series. What is it like to be, kind of, learning together and to have that again?
Buescher: That’s actually pretty neat. I’ve been racing these guys since Legends cars with Ryan Blaney. And Chase, we ran some ARCA stuff together. Brian Scott in the years of XFINITY. [Jeffrey] Earnhardt, we’ve been running around him in XFINITY as well.
It is cool to be racing around the same guys again. It’s like you can’t ever get away! That’s good though, that means we’ve all been able to move up through different ranks and be successful at it. We’ve competed on other series and here we are at the top of our motorsport industry and we’re competing for the same honors, just in a different series now.
Catanzareti: Do you ever feel like you’re in the shadow of guys like Chase and Ryan? They get a lot of attention in the rides they’re in. Do you feel in the shadow or do you look past that?
Buescher: Not really a shadow. It does get more attention being on that side of the garage. For me, I’ve personally always been a little bit under the radar. But we’ve still gotten the results. We’ve been able to run for championships and to win those championships and to be able to be right there.
To me, the hype is not the important part. The results are what really matter. I’m fine with being a little bit under the radar and sneaking up on them.
Catanzareti: Did you ever expect this celebrity-esque setting you have in the Cup Series? People asking for autographs, taking pictures, media on you. When you first got into racing, did you see that out there that you were going to get this much attention?
Buescher: Definitely not. It’s really something you never thought about coming up, you just wanted to race. You would come to the racetrack and go in circles and be the best at doing it. There is so much more that goes with it. I wish somebody would’ve given me a heads-up a long time ago because there are a lot of other things you have to work toward to be able to be successful.
There’s a lot of meet-and-greets, a lot of hospitality, a lot of meetings and dinners with sponsors and talking to a lot of different people. You have to be good at communicating with people to be able to do this.
And, you know, for some people, it’s hard. And for me, it was. I’ve had to work early hard to try and open up and to be a little more personable so that we can be successful in the Cup Series.
Catanzareti: Do you embrace that kind of stuff or do you see it as a distraction?
Buescher: I think there is a time and place for it. No doubt. We have a lot of fun doing a lot of different things with sponsors. Some of our sponsors with us from the past have been a blast. Taking a sponsor on rides around racetracks. It is a blast.
You get to meet a lot of really cool people along the way. It gets you pretty awesome opportunities. We’ve been able to go sit in suites for football games among others things. It’s neat seeing the other side of it to getting to know a lot of different people.
On race weekend, there is a balance because this is ultimately what drives everything forward. This is our job, our career. And results, it’s driven by results in this business. We do have to keep the focus when we’re at the racetrack and there are certain times where we have to stay in the zone or in the moment to make sure we get our job done.
Catanzareti: What driver has given you the best lesson so far? Whether it be on-track, off-track or one-on-one time.
Buescher: I don’t really know if I have one thing in particular. I talk to David Ragan quite a bit. He’s helped me a lot with some off-track stuff, just trying to stay organized and realize what all goes along with this. I’ve talked to Ricky Stenhouse a decent amount, not only this year, but last year running my first couple of Cup starts and a lot on the XFINITY side when I was trying to learn those cars.
Between those two, I can bounce around a lot of good ideas and try to figure out how to manage stuff on the track and everything that goes along off the track.