Monday, April 15, 2024

Chris Buescher closes out Cup regular season with RFK 1–2

It is RFK Racing‘s world and we are all living in it.

Chris Buescher concluded the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series regular season with the best five-race stretch of his career, scoring three wins including the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway. Making Saturday’s win all the sweeter was his boss Brad Keselowski finishing right behind him after both worked together in the overtime scramble, scoring the organisation’s first 1–2 finish since Carl Edwards and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at the 2014 Food City 500.

After both missed the playoffs in 2022, the first year under the RFK name, the duo carry all the momentum into the 2023 playoffs; although winless, Keselowski scored top tens in Buescher’s three wins including leading the most laps in the first at Richmond and a fourth in the second at Michigan. Keselowski also won Stage #2.

“Certainly talked about it after even Richmond itself, but surely after Michigan. Talked about kind of hitting our momentum at the right time,” said Buescher in his post-race press conference. “This is another big step in the right direction. I think first and foremost, this was as much an RFK win and Brad’s win as it was ours. That was the exact push we needed for the entire two laps coming back to the checkered. Wouldn’t be sitting up here without him and us executing that way. It’s what we’ve tried to do when we’ve gone speedway racing. Kind of committed to it at a lot of places. Here, at the 500, led all the way with three or four to go, ended up getting separated.

“We’ve worked hard to find ourselves in these situations. We’ve needed to capitalise and close the deal on the last two percent of these races. We were finally able to do that tonight.

“Huge moment to do it here at Daytona, to close out the regular season this way. Surely a big moment for us, great momentum. I hate even saying it, but probably good for points and what we got ahead of us as well. Got some really fun race tracks coming up for us that we’ve been really excited about even before getting that checkered flag tonight.”

Fords were the top manufacturer throughout the race. After Stewart-Haas Racing‘s Chase Briscoe won the pole with team-mate Aric Almirola alongside him, Blue Ovals led a combined 110 of 162 laps among eight drivers. Briscoe, needing a win to qualify for the playoffs, led the most at 67 but was eliminated by a frightening crash with his SHR ally Ryan Preece with three laps remaining that caused Preece to get airbourne on the backstretch before violently flipping multiple times.

Preece was taken to Halifax Medical Center for evaluation before being discharged on Sunday. He posted on social media the previous night, “If you want to be a race car driver, you better be tough.”

The wreck was one of only two that took place, and the three total caution flags (the other was for the end of Stage #1) were the fewest in a Cup race at Daytona since the pre-stage-era 2003 Pepsi 400 had two. However, the first crash was also terrifying as twelve cars were taken out on lap 96 in a massive pile-up triggered when Christopher Bell‘s push on team-mate Ty Gibbs caused leader Ryan Blaney to hook right into the outside wall; Blaney hit the outside wall in turn four with such force that it caused the SAFER barrier to bend to absorb the impact.

Although initially shaken, Blaney said he was “alright. It’s just a big hit. I’m happy it had a SAFER barrier on it. That was large. It’s a big testament to the new front clips. That would have hurt a lot more if we didn’t have the new front clip on it, so that was a positive about that, but still pretty hard.”

Gibbs being involved also knocked him out of playoff contention. Entering Daytona, he was the first car below the cutline in seventeenth and needed Toyota colleague Bubba Wallace to have a poor showing while he won or finished high enough. Wallace, who was thirty-two points ahead of Gibbs, finished sixth in Stage #1 to force everyone behind Gibbs in the standings to win in order to qualify.

Almirola and Chase Elliott provided the biggest threats to Wallace’s prospects as the latter fell back in overtime, but needed to get by the already-clinched Kevin Harvick and RFK drivers. Harvick took the white flag with Elliott in tow, only for Almirola to give Buescher and Keselowski the draft to pull ahead.

Wallace finished twelfth to clinch his maiden playoff appearance

“It’s ass-backwards. You come to Daytona, and you focus so much on controlling the things that you can control. My stubborn ass never wants to listen to people telling me that. I finally did that, and we are locked in,” commented Wallace. “What an incredible feat for our #23 team. I had a heart-to-heart with my team after Atlanta; after qualifying, I said if we got our shit together, we can do great things in the playoffs. I’m so proud of the team from top down, very thankful.”

While Elliott will not race for the driver’s championship, he and his backup drivers Josh Berry, Corey LaJoie, and Jordan Tayor helped the #9 get the final spot in the owner’s playoffs over Wallace’s #23. Wallace was involved in a similar situation in 2022 when his 23XI Racing team got their #45 into the owner’s playoffs with Kurt Busch and Gibbs, which pushed Blaney’s #12 out of that championship despite him being in the driver’s playoffs, and Wallace took over the #45 for the rest of the season.

“Hate the season has worked out like it has,” Elliott stated. He missed seven races due to injury and suspension. “The good news is the car got in in the owner’s points. That’s a big deal. Credit to Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) and everybody for continuing to work and scratch and claw while I was out to keep our team alive and to give ourselves a chance. That’s a big deal, probably much bigger than a lot of people realise, to our team.

“Looking forward to these next ten (races). Try to make a little noise on that side of things and just try to get ready and prepared for next year. I appreciate everybody’s support through this season. Hasn’t been what I would want by any means, certainly going to be some lessons taken from it, and I think we’ll be better for it on the other end.”

Race results

Finish Start Number Driver Team Manufacturer Laps Status
1 11 17 Chris Buescher RFK Racing Ford 163 Running
2 12 6 Brad Keselowski RFK Racing Ford 163 Running
3 2 10 Aric Almirola Stewart-Haas Racing Ford 163 Running
4 23 9 Chase Elliott^ Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 163 Running
5 14 22 Joey Logano Team Penske Ford 163 Running
6 31 48 Alex Bowman Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 163 Running
7 18 8 Kyle Busch Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet 163 Running
8 27 24 William Byron Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 163 Running
9 10 4 Kevin Harvick Stewart-Haas Racing Ford 163 Running
10 37 7 Corey LaJoie Spire Motorsports Chevrolet 163 Running
11 30 77 Ty Dillon Spire Motorsports Chevrolet 163 Running
12 4 23 Bubba Wallace 23XI Racing Toyota 163 Running
13 39 34 Michael McDowell Front Row Motorsports Ford 163 Running
14 26 62 Austin Hill* Beard Motorsports Chevrolet 163 Running
15 36 13 Chandler Smith* Kaulig Racing Chevrolet 163 Running
16 15 20 Christopher Bell Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota 163 Running
17 25 1 Ross Chastain Trackhouse Racing Team Chevrolet 163 Running
18 24 43 Erik Jones Legacy Motor Club Chevrolet 163 Running
19 33 51 J.J. Yeley* Rick Ware Racing Ford 163 Running
20 22 99 Daniel Suárez Trackhouse Racing Team Chevrolet 163 Running
21 28 31 Justin Haley Kaulig Racing Chevrolet 163 Running
22 29 42 Josh Berry* Legacy Motor Club Chevrolet 163 Running
23 38 78 B.J. McLeod Live Fast Motorsports Chevrolet 163 Running
24 13 19 Martin Truex Jr. Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota 163 Running
25 20 45 Tyler Reddick 23XI Racing Toyota 163 Running
26 19 11 Denny Hamlin Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota 162 Running
27 7 5 Kyle Larson Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 161 Running
28 3 21 Harrison Burton Wood Brothers Racing Ford 160 Running
29 17 16 A.J. Allmendinger Kaulig Racing Chevrolet 160 Running
30 1 14 Chase Briscoe Stewart-Haas Racing Ford 156 Accident
31 9 41 Ryan Preece Stewart-Haas Racing Ford 155 Accident
32 35 38 Todd Gilliland Front Row Motorsports Ford 131 Overheating
33 21 3 Austin Dillon Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet 102 Accident
34 32 47 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet 96 Accident
35 5 54 Ty Gibbs Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota 94 Accident
36 8 12 Ryan Blaney Team Penske Ford 94 Accident
37 16 2 Austin Cindric Team Penske Ford 94 Accident
38 6 36 Riley Herbst* Front Row Motorsports Ford 94 Accident
39 34 15 Brennan Poole* Rick Ware Racing Ford 93 Accident
Bold – Currently in playoffs
^ – Currently in owner playoffs
Italics – Competing for Rookie of the Year
* – Ineligible for points