As a rookie in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Chris Buescher has endured lots of new experiences this season.
That includes seeing what the inside of a race track’s infield care center looks like.
Buescher’s trip to see the doctor – he wasn’t injured and was quickly released -- came in the season-opening Daytona 500, where he crashed his No. 34 Ford on the 91st lap.
“It has looked bad on paper because I had never been to the infield care center before this season,” said Buescher, who once completed all 2,786 laps of an Auto Racing Club of America (ARCA) season. “I have never gotten a car to the point it couldn’t be fixed and back on track -- before this season.”
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Buescher, however, found enough consistency – as well as a much-needed victory – to qualify for NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup, which begins Sunday in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
Buescher, 23, is one of two rookies in the postseason, joining Chase Elliott, 20. That’s a rarity. The only other rookie to qualify for the Chase since its 2004 inception was Denny Hamlin in 2006.
Buescher and Elliott arrived in the Chase through different routes. Elliott didn’t win a race in the regular season, but accumulated enough points to qualify. Buescher earned his spot with a victory at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway in August, although he had to finish in the top 30 in driver points to make the Chase, something that wasn’t guaranteed until after last week’s race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.
I try to stay pretty level headed. I am not one to get too excitable about a lot of things.
And despite some recent similarities (Buescher and Elliott won the past two Xfinity Series titles), their backgrounds are also markedly different.
The son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, Chase grew up in Dawsonville, Ga., immersed in NASCAR’s big-time Cup atmosphere. Chase accompanied his dad to Cup races and soon carved out a successful short-track career for himself. He signed a development contract with Hendrick Motorsports in 2011, began racing in the Truck Series in 2013 and won the Xfinity title in 2014.
Buescher was raised racing in and around his hometown of Prosper, Texas. He relocated to the Charlotte area in 2008 at the age of 15 to be nearer to NASCAR’s hub, moving in with the family of Ken Ragan, who had a race shop as manager of 600 Racing’s Legends cars team. Buescher soaked up knowledge from Ragan and his son David, who was (and remains) a Cup driver.
“I learn so much from them,” Buescher told the Dallas Morning News. “They gave me advice and direction. They showed me that if I wanted to make it, I really had to be serious about it.”
Chase Elliott and Chris Buescher are the first -- and only -- rookies to make the Chase since Denny Hamlin in 2006.
Like Elliott, Buescher signed a development contract with a major race team, Roush Fenway Racing, in 2010. He won an ARCA race that season and in 2012, at age 19, became the second youngest driver to win an ARCA championship.
That was the season during which he completed every lap. It was that kind of consistency that served him well as he progressed through the ranks, jumping to the Xfinity series full time in 2014 and winning the title a year later.
He signed with Statesville-based Front Row Racing (which has a technical alliance with Roush Fenway), replacing Ragan in the team’s No. 34 Ford.
Then came the foggy day at Pocono, where Buescher won by staying on the track during a caution while other leaders pitted as the weather would eventually stop the race prematurely.
“Somebody asked me about guys that are trying to break their way in: How do they get anywhere?” driver Brad Keselowski said after Buescher’s victory. “I said the key is to make the most of your opportunities. Chris is a master at that. He makes the most out of each and every opportunity, and that’s going to take him a long way in his career. He and his team did that today. A lot of credit for that.”
1 Victory this season for Chris Buescher, enough to qualify him for the Chase
Elliott, who finished second to Buescher in the 2015 Xfinity points race, has remained with Hendrick and inherited Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 Chevy for his first Cup ride. After winning the pole for the Daytona 500, Elliott’s season has had its share of highs and lows – and no victories. He finished second twice at Michigan, but has finished 30th or lower six times. Still, he’s been consistent enough to land the spot in the Chase.
“I’m proud of some moments, not so proud of others,” Elliott said. “We’ve given ourselves a couple opportunities to contend for a couple wins, which I think is good. Not so good to not be able to capitalize on those opportunities.”
Another veteran driver who has been watching the rookies is Tony Stewart, who is retiring after this season. Stewart remembers Elliott as a shy young boy, accompanying his father Bill to the Cup garage during race weekends.
“For the first three years I knew Chase, I didn’t even know he could talk because he never said one word to me,” said Stewart. “But he would be at the car every week. Bill would bring him to the car every week because he wanted to come down and see us.
“I got him to smile maybe four or five times in the three years. But he wanted to come down here. You knew he was engaged. You knew he wanted to be there. You could see it in his eyes. But he never spoke. He never said one word for the first three years. When he got a little older, he started talking, finally.”
Elliott remains a young man of few words. Buescher also prides himself on being unassuming and maintaining an even keel.
“I try to stay pretty level-headed,” said Buescher. “I am not one to get too excitable about a lot of things.”
Now, the rookies find themselves competing with former champions like Keselowski and Stewart for a Cup title.
“When you see these kids that are growing up now, you don’t realize how old you are until you realize how old they are now,” Stewart said. “Start doing the math. You’re like, hmm, it’s changed a lot.”