When you’re the little guy – and Statesville-based Front Row Motorsports certainly qualifies – it’s essential you think out of the box to compete in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series.
That’s exactly how rookie Chris Buescher won Monday at the weather-plagued Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway. He stayed out under caution when others pitted just as fog started engulfing the track.
The event never got back to green-flag racing. NASCAR parked the cars with 22 laps to go just before 3 p.m. and slightly more than an hour later – with a major storm cell approaching – NASCAR declared the race completed.
So rookie Buescher, 23, wins his first Sprint Cup race in 27 career starts. If Buescher can manage to finish Sprint Cup’s regular season top 30 in driver points, he will be the surprise qualifier for the Chase playoff system.
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Veteran Brad Keselowski finished second and Regan Smith finished third.
It was an odd sight at the race’s conclusion. NASCAR hadn’t just parked the cars; each one had been covered with form-fitting tarps to guard against the approaching storm. Thick fog had made it impossible for roof-top spotters to see their various cars for the entirety of the 2.5-mile triangular track layout. That forced the red flag that was never lifted.
Keselowski was so ready for this race to be called that he twice walked into the infield media center, waiting to wrap up his post-race interview responsibilities. Keselowski, who has won four races this season, was pleased for his friend Buescher, the reigning Xfinity champion.
"Somebody asked me (during Friday’s media availability) about guys that are trying to break their way in: How do they get anywhere? And I said the key is to make the most of your opportunities," former Sprint Cup champion Keselowski said.
"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."
Keselowski took Buescher aside during the wait to see whether the race would resume.
"I just told him if I couldn’t win, it was cool to see him win," Keselowski recalled saying. "And I told him, ‘I can only imagine what’s going through your head right now.’
"I think he was excited, but he’s kind of a humble, quiet excited kind of guy."
NASCAR’s Sprint Cup rookie class is loaded with talent this season. But Buescher outshone the likes of Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney to become the first rookie to win a race since Joey Logano in 2009.
"I sure hoped so," Buescher replied when asked if he’d imagined winning as a rookie. "That’s always the plan and the idea to get here as quick as possible."
These victories aren’t common at Front Row Racing. The was the team’s first since David Ragan won at Talladega in 2013.
Buescher and his crew chief, Bob Osborne, saw progress the past few weeks as far as drawing speed from the Dockside Logistics Ford. But it was going to require some risk and some good fortune to pull off what happened Monday.
"It’s a different way to do and some people won’t have the same respect for it," Buescher said of winning under red flag.
"But when you look back, it’s just about strategy and a lot more of the credit for this one goes to Bob and the team for making sure that we were in position to be able to make that call and be brave."
Buescher had to overcome a mistake he made at about the 92nd lap. Coming through Turn 2 he nearly collided with Brian Scott’s Ford and over-corrected, sliding down the track. That resulted in a cut tire.
Fortunately, Buescher was close to pit road when the tire started smoking and he avoided losing excessive track position. But he sped off pit road and was assessed a stop-and-go penalty.
"When things don’t go our way," Buescher said of the pit-road speeding, "I’ve got to calm down and make things smoother."
Perhaps so, but Monday ended up a day to celebrate.
"Pretty special," Buescher summed up. "I’ve been working towards this since we decided I’d do this as a career and not a hobby (at age 12). So it’s 11 years in the making. It’s pretty awesome to be up here right now."
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell