Top of the Class
When the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series turned its final lap of 2019 on Sunday, it was fitting that the highest underdog was Chris Buescher. One could have their pick of a multitude of reasons why it was appropriate that his 16th-place finish made him the top dog.
First, no underdog was the best in class finisher more often in 2019 than Buescher. His incredible streak of top-20 finishes spanned nearly half of the season and was a large part of why Buescher ended the year 20th in points as well. The JTG Daugherty Racing driver finished just two positions behind Jimmie Johnson in the standings and ahead of such drivers as Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Additionally, it marked the end of Buescher’s time as a member of an underdog team. Next year, he will return to Roush Fenway Racing, where he scored an Xfinity Series championship in 2015. Buescher will take over the seat in the No. 17 Ford recently vacated by Stenhouse.
I suppose the appropriate outcome continued with our second highest underdog from Sunday’s race at Homestead Miami Speedway. Matt DiBenedetto, along with Buescher, was light years ahead of the rest of the pack in terms of his consistency and even seemed closer to victory lane than his underdog counterpart.
DiBenedetto rounded out the season with a 20th-place finish in the championship finale. There was a time not long ago when such a finish would have been cause for celebration for both he and the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota. But both have improved so immensely that it was borderline disappointing to go out in such an uneventful fashion.
Just as Buescher will, DiBenedetto is also going to lose his underdog status in 2020. He will take the wheel of the famed Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford, and regardless of their recent performance, I refuse to consider anything built in a Team Penske shop to be underdog material.
The Xfinity Series race on Saturday saw two underdogs break into the top 15 at the finish. Brandon Brown capped off a stellar full-time season with his 13th-place finish. Brown made a habit of running in the top half of the field in 2019 and could be primed for bigger things next year.
Then there is the story of Landon Cassill. Cassill ran the entire race in Morgan Shepherd’s No. 89 car, which is an accomplishment in itself. The car hadn’t been on the track at the end of a race since Dover in 2013. Even more remarkable was the finish was the best for the car since it came in 13th at Las Vegas in 2009. To put it in perspective, series champion Tyler Reddick was 13 years old.
Friday night (Nov. 15) saw the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series make their final laps of 2019 and like the Xfinity Series, only two underdogs were able to crack the top 15. Occasional pit reporter and part-time racer Parker Kligerman brought his No. 75 home in 10th place. Gus Dean earned the other top finish with his 15th-place showing.
While two of our favorite underdogs move on to bigger things next year, the cupboard is hardly bare. Christopher Bell brings his impressive ability to the DiBenedetto’s old ride. Couple that with the increase in support from Joe Gibbs Racing and this team could break through in a big way.
Additionally, Front Row Motorsports will be replacing both the now-retired David Ragan as well as Matt Tifft, who had to step away for health reasons. John Hunter Nemechek outran his teammates in all three of his starts in relief for Tifft, including a 21st-place effort in his Cup Series debut at Texas, and could become a permanent fixture there. FRM driver Michael McDowell will be back as well.
More chips will fall into place in the months between now and Daytona, but rest assured: The competition in the middle of the pack next year will be just as compelling as the battle at the front.
Today starts the 2020 racing year. And because of that I wanted to say thank you to @mattdracing , his wife and family for the year we spent together. They will always be friends of our family. So today @LFR95 moves forward with @CBellRacing and all our efforts are for him.
— Bob Leavine (@BLeavine) November 18, 2019
— Gaunt Bros Racing (@GauntBrosRacing) November 18, 2019
For the first time since 2013, Shepherd Racing Ventures had the funding to run the full race. @landoncassill finished 15th for the team, it’s best finish since Las Vegas, 2009.@m_massie22 talked to team owner Morgan Shepherd after pic.twitter.com/Q6LLAO0VYk
— Frontstretch (@Frontstretch) November 17, 2019
— Front Row Motorsports (@Team_FRM) November 15, 2019