Sure, Chris Buescher’s career was on the rise entering 2016. But not even Buescher predicted he would be one of two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookies to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Everything changed for the Texas native come Aug. 1. The weekend was already strange, with poor weather slapping Pocono Raceway across the face from Saturday to Monday. What appeared to be a battle between Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon vying for their first triumphs in NASCAR’s premier division ended with a strategy call by Buescher’s veteran crew chief, Bob Osborne. As the fog flowed directly over the 2.5-mile track in the midst of the Pocono Mountains, the No. 34 car led the field.
Buescher walked back and forth, up and down pit road, during the elongated red flag when it was obvious the weather would only worsen. He joked around with his crew and fellow drivers, not believing he was about to do the unthinkable.
All told, Buescher earned Front Row Motorsports its second victory in team history, and more importantly, a spot in the Chase.
Prior to his triumph, he wasn’t even inside of the top 30 in the standings, which was necessary in order to qualify for the Chase; he was two spots behind teammate Landon Cassill in the standings, sitting 31st.
As a result, Roush Fenway Racing, which loaned Buescher to Front Row Motorsports in 2016, bumped up its alliance with the two-car team. And it certainly paid off in the weeks after the Pocono win.
Come Bristol Motor Speedway two races later, the Roush alliance proved to be worthwhile for the rookie driver. Not only did Buescher qualify in the top 15 for the first time all year, a massive turnaround from his average qualifying position of 26.2, but he also ran in the top 10 throughout the 500-mile race.
Buescher finished fifth at Bristol, the team’s first top 5 that wasn’t a victory at a non-restrictor plate track. It also marked the team’s first top 10 at a non-restrictor plate track since David Ragan earned a top 10 at Martinsville Speedway in 2014, giving the team plenty of confidence as the biggest underdog in the Chase.
But the Roush alliance could only carry Buescher and the No. 34 crew so far.
As the Chase arrived at Chicagoland Speedway, Roush’s struggles had a major impact on Buescher’s attempt at advancing to the Round of 12. He finished 28th at Chicagoland, followed by 28th at New Hampshire Motor Speedway before his Chase hopes came to an end with a 23rd-place finish at Dover International Speedway.
But Buescher certainly deserves credit where it’s due. He needed to put that No. 34 car inside of the top 30 in points before the Chase began. Though he barely got there, the important thing is that he indeed got there.
Even after Buescher was kicked out of the Chase, he continuously ran with the soon-to-be-downsizing Roush operation. With three straight top 25s at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, he became a leader for the little team that could.
For 2017, while the rumor mill had Buescher replacing Greg Biffle at RFR, he will be joining forces with JTG Daugherty Racing, becoming AJ Allmendinger‘s teammate. Along with Buescher, the No. 16 team’s charter will head over to the Chevrolet option, as Roush still has a contract with the 2015 XFINITY Series champion — meaning, in a roundabout way, Buescher kind of replaces Biffle after all… same charter, just a different team.
The move for Buescher will be quite interesting given that he has never piloted a car that isn’t a Ford in ARCA or NASCAR. That said, instead of growing his career with a team that is ascending into a time of many unknowns, he makes a move that could be the best one of his career. Though there are many unknowns with the No. 37 Chevrolet team, including the identity of Buescher’s crew chief, there are many positives with this move, chief among them being that he joins a team that made the Chase once before, and is coming off its best season. Allmendinger earned a pair of top 5s and nine top 10s in 2016, along with earning an average finish of 17.8, the best in the organization’s history.
The most intriguing part of this move will be seeing how Buescher performs at the intermediate tracks, a strength he showcased during his XFINITY Series title run. Allmendinger ran quite well at the intermediates last year, with four of his top 10s coming at that type of track.
As Buescher transitions to his new team, the pressure is on. There’s a scenario past 2017 in which Roush could fully sell the No. 16 charter to JTG Daugherty Racing. If that’s the case, he needs to mentally prepare himself for the next step of his career, which could be far, far away from the team that gave him a chance to prove himself and instead with a totally different organization — and car make, for that matter.
That, or 2017 could just be another year in transition for the former XFINITY champion.