It’s not a secret that Mother Nature likes to throw a monkey wrench in NASCAR. Rain has played a big role in the sport over the years, and the sport has even seen snow delays. Wind, lightning, and fog have also delayed of races, and last weekend’s events at Pocono included a bit of all three.
First came a rainy Sunday morning. NASCAR worked hard to get the track dry that morning and was close to having it ready – weepers were the only thing track workers were fighting as the sun came out, but a brief rain shower forced NASCAR to start all over. With more rain on the way, NASCAR postponed the race to Monday.
Monday started out just as wet as Sunday. But when the track was finally dry, just prior to noon, drivers strapped in and raced until rain and fog rolled in with about 20 laps to go.
So the drivers waited. And waited. And when the race ended after about an hour’s worth of waiting, Chris Buescher found himself hoisting the trophy for the Pennsylvania 400.
A rookie driving for Front Row Motorsports, Buescher had realistic goals for the season but thought the team could win if given the right opportunity. By stretching his fuel farther than anyone else during a green flag run, Buescher found his opportunity.
And now all he needs to qualify for the Chase is to make up the six points separating him and David Ragan to crack the top 30 in the points. With five races to go, will he be able to make up that deficit?
IT’LL BE TOUGH
When you look at the effort that Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart gave the past two years, it seems like anybody can qualify for the Chase. After all, both drivers missed significant portions of the regular season only to snag a win (or four) and score enough points to make the top 30 in points by the time the series reached Richmond.
Buescher’s six-point deficit looks pretty easy to overcome based on those examples, right?
It’s trickier than that. Both Busch and Stewart drive for teams among the best in the garage, while FRM is a lower-tier team. Likewise, Busch and Stewart have years of Cup experience and, in Stewart’s case, multiple championships, to lean on in order to help them to know when to push the envelope and when to back off. Buescher is a Cup rookie, a past XFINITY champion, but still learning the ropes on the Cup side of things.
Case in point: Buescher’s average finish this season is 27.8. That’s been good enough to get him to 31st in the point standings. But he needs to get to 30th and it’s that inexperience coupled with his competition and the state of FRM that will keep him from getting there.
Now, that last issue could be easily remedied. FRM already has an alliance with Roush Fenway Racing, which has shown speed over the past few weeks and will definitely be sharing information with Buescher. Ford, too, currently has only two drivers in the Chase and would love to see a third, so expect the Blue Oval to throw a little more support Buescher’s way over the next five races.
But Buescher still has to contend with Ragan. The BK Racing driver currently sits 30th in points, and if things aren’t to change much, will still be there after Chicago. Ragan’s average finish is 27.6 this season, a hair better than Buescher. And Ragan has one fewer DNF than Buescher – three compare to four. It’s so close right now that a poor finish by either could make all the difference in this battle.
But suppose nothing breaks and both drivers can bring it home clean the next five weeks.
Ragan still has the advantage over Buescher. Here’s a look at their stats the past two years at the remaining five tracks before the Chase:
- Watkins Glen: Ragan scored a 23rd-place finish last season and in 2014 finished 19th in the same car Buescher is driving now. Buescher, on the other hand, finished 37th in his lone Glen start last summer, again driving in the No. 34
- Bristol: Ragan finished 41st and 40th last year at the track, involved in accidents in both races. In 2014 he finished 23rd and 31st in the No. 34. Buescher finished 21st this spring and 25th last spring here.
- Michigan: Ragan has finished 24th, 35th, 18th and 22nd in his last four starts at the track. Buescher finished 20th earlier this season.
- Darlington: Ragan’s last two starts at the Track Too Tough to Tame netted him finishes of 32nd and 40th, one due to a crash. Buescher hasn’t raced Cup at the track yet and while the track is notoriously rough on rookies, he did finish fifth here in the NXS last fall.
- Richmond: Ragan’s last four races saw him finish 33rd, 23rd, 17th and 23rd. Buescher finished 34th this spring.
You can tell it’s close. The biggest wild cards are Watkins Glen and Darlington. If Buescher can survive those races – and preferably finished ahead of Ragan – then he has a hope of passing him in the standings. But it’s a tall order to do so for the rookie, and I’m afraid they used all their luck up at Pocono.
It’ll be a compelling battle for sure, but in the end Ragan’s experience will keep the upstart Buescher from qualifying for the Chase.
HE CAN DO IT
Chris Buescher will make this year’s Chase.
Who doesn’t like an underdog story? Front Row Motorsports has been in this position before, winning with David Ragan three years ago at Talladega. The only difference between now and then is the Chase format, which might help the underfunded teams.
Sure, one would think in order to win a race you’d have to be in the top 30 in points. However, on Monday, Buescher and the No. 34 team proved that’s not always the case.
Prior to Pocono, Buescher was coming off a career-high finish at the Brickyard where he finished 14th, and sitting 31st in the point standings. At Pocono’s tricky triangle, a cut tire and a bit of good luck turned his season and possibly career around as crew chief Bob Osborne played the strategy game.
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. For the rookie driver, he called his shot prior to New Hampshire in an exclusive interview with Frontstretch.
“We’re trying to get everything done for this year and if we could win a race and get back into the top 30 in points it would be huge,” Buescher said at New Hampshire. “It’s not out of the question, but it would be a lot of work to get to that point. We’re going to try as hard as we can to win one, but we just have to keep making progress and our racecars faster, finding a setup that works better for me so I can relate to Bob better.”
With 1000-1 odds of winning Pocono, it’s doubtful Buescher believed that he actually had a chance to go to Victory Lane at Pocono. Though it was rain-shortened does that dampen the win?
Not necessarily because the last person to win a rain-shortened event was Dale Earnhardt, Jr. at Phoenix last fall and everybody knows that Junior Nation fully supported that win.
This win was a huge moment for the 23-year-old Texan. For Front Row Motorsports, it’s what could draw more partners onto their racecars. This could be the launching point toward a championship run.
Currently sitting six points behind the 30th-place Chase cutoff, it’s not a walk in to making the playoffs. However, what’s noticeably different over the past month or so is the speed in the No. 34 team.
Right around the Kentucky race, Buescher stepped up and fulfilled the potential. While he was on pace to scoring at the time a new career-high finish, he was caught up in an incident finishing 37th. That weekend in practice, his Ford was as high as 14th on the speed chart.
In the past two weeks, the No. 34 team has made the second round of qualifying, which is a big feat for a small team. The organization is providing fast racecars to the drivers, leaving it up to them to come home with the finish.
Obviously, there’s more to racing than just that, but with five races remaining until the Chase, Buescher sits in a good position of making the top 30.
The Cup Series heads to Watkins Glen International this weekend and in 2014, Buescher picked up his first career victory in the XFINITY Series at Mid-Ohio, a similar road course. Last year, he made one of his six starts of the season at WGI, where he crashed on the fast lap, but started a season-high 32nd.
After the Glen, the series heads to Bristol. Buescher recorded a 21st-place finish in the spring, while finishing 20th at Michigan, a track that normally suits the Ford camp.
Buescher has never raced at Darlington in the Cup Series, but in the final race before the Chase he returns to Richmond, where he finished 34th in April.
His statistics from 2016 don’t look great. There is a reason he’s 31st in the standings. But with the speed that Buescher has shown over the last month, he will sneak into the Chase, upsetting many of teams around the cutoff.