By John Kekis
AP Sports Writer
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Chris Buescher is a giant step closer to qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup after notching a victory at Pocono. Now, he has to take that small step — make it into the top 30 in points, the cutoff needed to become eligible for NASCAR’s postseason.
“I absolutely think we can get into the top 30,” the rookie said Friday before practice on the road course at Watkins Glen. “We really shouldn’t have been out of it.”
Buescher emerged from the fog at Pocono on Monday to become the surprising winner in a shortened Cup race, compliments of a race strategy call by Bob Osborne, veteran crew chief of the No. 34 for Front Row Motorsports. Buescher’s best finish this season before his breakthrough victory had been 14th.
Osborne took a gamble and kept Buescher on track while others made pit stops with 28 laps left. Once the cars were halted because of the weather, the fog and rain settled in and Buescher was declared the winner. The victory left him 31st in the points standings, six points behind David Ragan for 30th as the teams prepare for Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 at The Glen.
Ragan was the driver who won Front Row’s first race, at Talladega in May 2013, 118 races ago. Ragan also helped Buescher get his career off the ground by setting him up with living arrangements, signing him to his Legends car team as a development driver, and connecting him with Roush Fenway Racing.
The irony of the moment is not lost on Buescher.
“It’s funny for me,” he said. “David Ragan has been a huge help for me my entire career. His whole family has. We’ve got to pass him now, try to outrun him. It’s not going to just be him. There’s going to be a handful of them that we’re going to have to outrun. It just so happens that one of them is the guy that mentored me through a lot of the early stages of my stock car career.”
The 23-year-old Buescher is the first Cup rookie to win a race since Joey Logano at New Hampshire in 2009, and his first NASCAR victory came on a road course — at Mid-Ohio in 2014 in the second-tier Xfinity Series.
Buescher posted two Xfinity victories last season and won the series title. He’s spending his rookie season in Cup as basically the fourth driver for Roush Fenway Racing because of a shared technical alliance between the organizations. Osborne said that relationship would give his shop everything it needs in the coming weeks as the team seeks a Chase spot.
“I don’t see anything to hold him back from getting into the top 30,” said Ragan, who drives the No. 23 Toyota for BK Racing. “I’m certainly going to race hard. I don’t want him to get there at my expense, but he’s had speed of late. If he just had a little luck.”
With five races remaining before the Chase begins, 10 drivers have clinched spots in the 16-driver field: Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Logano, and Martin Truex Jr. With one win, Tony Stewart also has all but claimed one of the remaining spots.
That Buescher is ready to join them is not a surprise back at the shop. The surprise is that he isn’t in yet, and that’s mainly because of bad luck. He’s finished 30th or worse 10 times this season, including the first three restrictor plate races.
“It was our goal at the beginning of the season,” said Buescher, who spent a day and a half this week in Utah honing his road course skills. “We’re in really good shape. The last seven, eight weeks we’ve been unloading with a lot better speed, running better in the race. After this weekend, we’re going to a lot of places for the second time. We’ve got a good notebook. We feel like we have good chemistry where we can pick up speed in the next five races.”
Still, it promises to be full of intrigue, starting with newly paved Watkins Glen International, where strategy and fuel mileage often come into play in a race that covers just 220.5 miles. Buescher was 23rd fastest in final Cup practice Friday.
“I’m really happy for Bob, really happy for Chris,” said Carl Edwards, who worked with Osborne at Roush. “Bob and I talked a while back and Bob made a specific point. He said, ‘Chris is so good, people don’t realize how good this kid is.’ Hopefully, they can get things rolling and get in the points and maybe put something together for the end of the year.”