Chris Buescher’s task, should he accomplish it Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, is no small feat.
Buescher will try to parlay his improbable victory at a rain-shortened race this summer into a coveted berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Making NASCAR’s playoffs would be a coup for Buescher and Front Row Motorsports, an improbable participant in the Chase.
Buescher is eligible for the Chase by virtue of his August victory at Pocono . But the rules require the 16 drivers that make the Chase to be ranked 30th or higher in the standings, and Buescher is barely at that mark.
He goes into Saturday night’s race with an 11-point lead over David Ragan for 30th in the standings. So Buescher, last year’s Xfinity Series champion, needs a plan on how to race the regular-season finale.
“We are not in a full defensive mode,” he said Friday at the Virginia race track. “We can’t go out and just try to run every lap and stay out of everyone’s way. We don’t have that luxury. We are coming out here to race aggressively for every position, every point we can possibly get, without taking unnecessary risk.”
There are three scenarios in which Buescher can make the Chase without relying on the results of any other driver, and all require him to finish at least ninth. That’s probably a stretch considering Buescher has just two top-five finishes through 25 races this season.
In fact, he’s only been 30th in the standings for three weeks. The rest of the year, the 23-year-old rookie has been as low as 38th.
Vying for spots in the Chase are some of the bigger names in NASCAR, all of whom drive for top organizations. There are three spots available Saturday night — four if Buescher falls below 30th — and a first-time race winner would snag one of the open slots.
The winless drivers on the cusp of taking a spot in the Chase are: Chase Elliott of Hendrick Motorsports, Austin Dillon of Richard Childress Racing, Jamie McMurray of Chip Ganassi Racing and Ryan Newman, teammate to Dillon. All are ranked 14th or higher in the standings, making Buescher an anomaly in a system in which consistency reigns supreme.
But under the format adopted in 2014, NASCAR wanted to reward winning and made the Chase the prize for taking risks to win races. That’s how Buescher got to victory lane at Pocono, where he didn’t pit as weather closed in on the race track and inherited the lead in time for the race to be called. Those 12 laps led in Pennsylvania are the only laps Buescher has led this season.
It’s put him in position to strategize and race with a championship berth on the line, which he did last year in the Xfinity Series for Roush Fenway Racing.
“It has been a lot busier than normal and talking a lot about the same thing every week,” he said. “Trying to figure out the ideal scenarios so that we can race into the Chase and then move through the Chase. There is a lot of anticipation leading up to this weekend through the last several weeks. I love racing under the lights and I am excited about the race here at Richmond. I am pretty confident we are in a good spot right now.”
Here’s a look at the other drivers trying to race their way into the Chase:
ELLIOTT: The rookie driver for Rick Hendrick needs to finish at least 19th to make the Chase with no help if there is a new winner at Richmond. He’s ranked a solid 10th in the standings, best of all drivers who are winless this season. It’s not a surprise that Elliott is in this position considering how hyped he’s been.
DILLON: Ranked 12th in the standings, Dillon’s third full year in Cup is easily his best. He has career highs in every category but laps led, and a top-10 finish Saturday would secure his berth without help from any other drivers. “I think I’ve been nervous for the last two or three weeks now,” Dillon said. “Getting in the Chase is a big deal. It’s our main goal. I’ve done everything I can as a driver to prepare myself.”
McMURRAY: After making the Chase for the first time last year, McMurray has been on the bubble this entire season. He was clinging to just a seven-point lead over Newman for the final spot, but a penalty levied against Newman’s team this week gave McMurray breathing room. There are several mathematical scenarios for McMurray to make the Chase, but if there’s not a first-time winner, he’s in the field.
NEWMAN: A 15-point penalty for failing post-race inspection last weekend has hurt Newman’s chances to make the Chase. He wasn’t in a mood to discuss the setback Friday at Richmond, asking “what penalty?” when approached about the points deduction . He corrected a reporter who said that Newman had been penalized — it was RCR that was flagged, and the punishment was a loss of points — and wasn’t up for discussing how he felt.
“I don’t have a reaction. I’m just here to win,” he said.
Newman can control his own destiny by winning Saturday night.