Chris Buescher, the reigning XFINITY Series champion, returned to Victory Lane on Monday. After slogging through what has been a miserable rookie season in the Sprint Cup Series so far, Buescher scored his first win in NASCAR’s top level at Pocono Raceway. He may have gotten a big helping hand from Mother Nature, but great strategy helped him hold the lead at just the right time. Besides, Buescher’s first Cup win could lead to greater fortune in the future.
His first XFINITY win certainly did.
Buescher’s first triumph in NASCAR’s second tier series came nearly two years ago at Mid-Ohio. He was a rookie at that time as well, and he didn’t enter the XFINITY series with the fanfare that others did. The rookies on whom most fans focused were Chase Elliott and Ty Dillon. Buescher had won an ARCA championship in 2012, but that was certainly not a guarantee that he could succeed in NASCAR. In fact, his rookie campaign got off to an unexpectedly poor start when his No. 60 team failed to qualify at Daytona.
Fortunately for Buescher, missing Daytona was not a sign of things to come. He became a frequent sight in the top 10 as the season wore on, slowly but surely adjusting to his new Roush Fenway Racing team. But with Elliott and Dillon challenging drivers like Regan Smith, Elliott Sadler and Trevor Bayne for the championship, Buescher was still lost in the shuffle.
All of that changed when the XFINITY Series rolled into Mid-Ohio. Unlike Pocono, Buescher had one of the best cars that weekend. He started fifth and raced near the front for most of the event until taking the lead with 25 laps to go. The win did not come easily for Buescher, who had Smith and Brian Scott tailing him over the closing run. The No. 60 team was also close on fuel. Fortunately for Buescher, everything fell his way. He briefly got hung up behind a lapped car on the final circuit, but ultimately held on to claim his first NASCAR victory.
It is fair to say, though, that even with the win, Buescher’s emergence as the points leader and championship favorite last year still came as a bit of a surprise. Why is that? Buescher ended 2014 performing better than he had at the beginning of the season, picking up six top 10s in the eleven races following his win. His overall top 10 total of 14, however, was considerably less than Elliott, Smith, Sadler, Dillon and Scott, who all had at least 23. There was no denying that Buescher had made a nice recovery from his early-season troubles, but on an average day, he still appeared to be a step behind the top drivers, especially the ones from JR Motorsports. The smart money was on Elliott to repeat as champion.
Yet the 2015 season provided another opportunity for Buescher to raise his level of performance once again. The No. 60 team did not always have the fastest cars, but it was the best in the business at minimizing mistakes and avoiding bad finishes. In 33 races, Buescher finished outside the top 15 only twice, and he never finished worse than 20th. The lack of really bad days was enough to make the difference in the championship battle, with Buescher defeating Elliott by 15 points.
This year, Buescher and many of his championship competitors have moved on to Sprint Cup. The drivers fighting for this year’s NXS championship are approaching the last leg of the season before the Chase begins. That leg happens to feature a lot of road course races, including three in the next four weeks. Watkins Glen is up first, followed by Mid-Ohio, a return to oval track racing at Bristol, and finally the third road course event at Road America.
Those road course races have become fan favorites. In a series which has suffered from predictable outcomes too many times in recent years, road courses offer fans something different than the norm. There is often an alternate cast of characters vying for the win, and road courses usually deliver plenty of action.
Additionally, having road course events is one of those rare cases in NASCAR in which something is good for both the fans and the drivers. In the next few weeks, the NXS regulars will have the opportunity to do what Buescher did two years ago.
In fact, Buescher is not the only driver who has produced a good story from an XFINITY road race. AJ Allmendinger scored a pair of redemptive wins at Road America and Mid-Ohio in 2013. Brendan Gaughan’s 2014 victory at Road America was his first win in any of NASCAR’s three national tours since 2003. Last year’s race at Mid-Ohio had a memorable finish as well, with Regan Smith nudging Alex Tagliani out of the way on the final lap to make the decisive pass.
But can anyone follow Buescher’s lead this year? Can anyone score a road course victory that will serve as a step up the NASCAR ladder? We will wait and see.
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