Roush Fenway Racing will enter the 2021 season with the same driver lineup for the first time since 2018. That comes after a 2020 season that saw Chris Buescher return to RFR for the first time since his 2015 NASCAR Xfinity Series title. Buescher replaced what many thought to be the foundation of the organization’s future in Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
With another year of experience under the Roush and Ford banner, Buescher will look to improve upon an unpredictable 2020 when the series heads to Daytona Beach in February.
A Look Back
After landing Buescher’s teammate Ryan Newman in the playoffs in 2019, RFR arguably had the most optimism they’d relished in a while. Buescher had come off a season with JTG Daughtery Racing in which he overachieved in his equipment many times. Roush was arguably an upgrade for Buescher, who was seeking to make the playoffs right off the bat. When the white flag flew over the field in the Daytona 500, nobody could have predicted what would happen next (much like 2020). Coming off of Turn 4, Newman looked comfortably in the lead with Buescher running 4th. When the field crossed the line, Buescher came home 3rd while his teammate slid on his roof after a terrifying crash. The heart-stopping crash easily overshadowed a strong day for the Roush cars. The look on Buescher’s face in his post-race interview portrayed the same uncertainty and fear we were all feeling.
— Chris Buescher (@Chris_Buescher) February 18, 2020
In the first four races before the COVID-19 shutdown, Buescher’s worst finish was a 17th at Phoenix Raceway, reflecting the same consistency he had found at JTG Dauthery. After the season restart in May, the No. 17 never seemed to find their footing. The pandemic restrictions from NASCAR hindered communication between Buescher and new crew chief Luke Lambert. When one is trying to learn a new crew chief and team with no practice and qualifying, the odds are heavily against them. That likely was the largest issue the team faced last year.
The team was still able to hit on bright spots. Buescher earned a career-high in top 10s and laps led and also earned his first career stage win at Talladega Superspeedway in October. Loyal sponsorship from Fastenal, Sunny D and Fifth Third Bank was also an important component to success. On the year, the 28-year-old recorded two top fives, eight top 10s, 33 laps led, a 19.6 average finish and a 21st-place points result (down from 20th in 2019).
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) October 4, 2020
Superspeedways are wild card tracks for just about every team and driver, but Buescher has found a way to be someone to watch at these tracks. In 2020, he recorded three top 10s in the four races between Daytona International Speedway and Talladega. The only reason he didn’t get a fourth was because NASCAR penalized him for forcing another driver below the double-yellow line at Talladega. His 10.0 average finish on superspeedways was good enough for third best in the series. Don’t forget about 2018 either, where he recorded an average finish of 10.5 on superspeedways, including two top fivess. Roush Yates Engines have a lot of power on these tracks, and if Buescher steers clear of trouble, a Daytona 500 triumph is a definite possibility.
Road courses also seem to present an opportunity for Buescher to succeed. He finished fifth on the Daytona road course, a strong finish for a mid-pack team on a new track. The Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL didn’t produce an eye-popping finish, but he earned his third straight top-20 finish on the road course layout in Concord, N.C.
Mile-and-a-half tracks were largely not a strength for this team in 2020, which is opposite of Buescher’s results on those tracks in 2019. That year, he recorded all four of his top 10s on mile-and-a-half tracks, while also recording 11 top-20s. Compare those stats to 2020, where he earned two top 10s on mile-and-a-half tracks with five top 20s.
While his short track results present a mixed bag, the Prosper, Texas native has brought attention to his runs at times. In 2020, the No. 17 team came home 13th at Martinsville Speedway in June while also earning a ninth-place finish in the Bristol Motor Speedway playoff race. Buescher has had strong runs on these types of tracks throughout his career, even if the results don’t show it.
With only eight events scheduled to hold practice and qualifying, off-season communication and work for this team is crucial in prepping them for the season. In the four races that held these preliminary sessions, Buescher seemed to have top-15 speed. But that restriction on meetings will also give Buescher and Lambert the challenge to adjust the car’s handling throughout races.
Much like 2019, RFR is in a make-or-break situation. After neither driver placed in the top 20 in points last season, the focus needs to be on consistency and communication. With a year of experience with Roush and Lambert, Buescher should see an improvement in his statistics across the board.
Top 20s are already the definite benchmark for this team. Now, they need more top 10s, and finishing inside the top 15 would be a benefit as well. Buescher had 20 top-20 finishes in 2020. In 2019, he had 28 in arguably lesser equipment. This team should hit at least 25 top 20s in 2021.
His eight top 10s in 2020 were twice the amount of Buescher’s previous career high (4). Despite the inconsistencies, that was a solid number to start out with despite the challenges 2020 presented. If this team can increase that number to 10-15, that would be a solid improvement. While Buescher had solid runs at times, he was not a fixed factor in the top 10 in many races. The speed and handling of the car seemed to be absent many times, causing this team to have to overcome issues they were not prepared for. His number of top fives in 2020 (2) should also be a goal to improve. To compare, Buescher scored two top fives in 2016 when he was driving for the largely underfunded Front Row Motorsports. That number needs to at least hit five this season or there should be cause for concern.
Roush is still not an organization that can go out and compete for wins at several tracks, and the chance of pointing their way into the playoffs is skeptical as well. However, a top-20 points finish should absolutely be the goal for this team. And who knows, if one of these Roush drivers find the consistency Newman had in 2019, along with some bad misfortunes to other drivers, a playoff spot is not out of the question. It should come to nobody’s surprise if Buescher wins the Daytona 500 or another superspeedway race. He has found a way to be in the conversation at the end several times. Tracks like the Daytona road course, Road America and Bristol also present opportunities for Buescher to sneak a win.
The other side of the spectrum? Stats similar to or worse than 2020 would be another domino to fall in downward spiral RFR has tried to climb back out of for years. Since 2015, only Stenhouse has won for RFR, and he was replaced by Buescher. This team needs to find year-long consistency, not little stretches of top-20s here or there. While Buescher only had three DNFs in 2020, he also had eight finishes of 25th or worse. He needs to cut that number in half to make a serious run this year. A finish outside the top-20 in points and single-digit top 10s are stats this team does not want to face in 2021.
This is only the second year for Buescher with the “Cat in the Hat” Jack Roush in the NASCAR Cup Series. He is also only 28 years old with five full-time seasons under his belt. There is still time to grow, but for an organization that is desperate to find their winning ways once again, 2021 is a crucial test for this No. 17 team. A playoff bid might be a longshot, but it is certainly not impossible. A points finish of 20th or higher should definitely be the bar to reach, and the team should be licking their chops if they restart in the front three rows in overtime at a track like Daytona or Talladega.