|SOURCE: Brian Lawdermilk, Getty Images|
Buescher, the defending XFINITY Series Champion, is competing in his first full Sprint Cup Series season, where he’s matched against fellow rookies Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Brian Scott, and Jeffrey Earnhardt. Buescher rose to prominence in the ARCA Racing Series, winning just his ninth series start at Toledo in 2010 when he was only 17. Buescher and the Roulo Brothers Racing team went on to claim the series title in 2012, at which point he was also making XFINITY Series starts for Roush-Fenway Racing. Buescher took home his first NASCAR victory during a thrilling finish at Mid-Ohio in 2014, then racked up another two wins and 20 Top Tens in 33 starts on his way to the 2015 XFINITY title.
Early in the 2015 season, Front Row Motorsports had planned to run the full Sprint Cup schedule with returning driver David Ragan. However, when Brian Vickers’ blood clot issue recurred, Ragan stepped in to relief drive for Michael Waltrip Racing, leaving Front Row’s #34 open. Following a handful of starts by Joe Nemechek and Brett Moffitt, Buescher was tabbed to drive at Fontana. The youngster rewarded the team with a strong 20th-place finish. Buescher and Moffitt shared the #34 for the rest of the year with Moffitt claiming Rookie of the Year, but Buescher was tabbed to drive full-time in 2016.
Buescher came into Saturday’s race just 33rd in points. While he improved his career-best finish with an 18th at Dover, he has encountered the same struggles traditionally faced by Cup rookies. His biggest struggles came on the restrictor-plate tracks. He crashed hard with Matt DiBenedetto near the halfway point of the Daytona 500, then tumbled wildly down the backstretch at Talladega. When the series returned to Daytona, NBC reported Buescher hoped simply to finish the race on the lead lap, something he’d done only three times this season.
For the July 4th weekend, Buescher’s sponsor Love’s Travel Stops brought back its camouflaged paint scheme with a gold racing stripe down the middle. David Gilliland put these same colors on the pole for the 400 in 2014. Buescher had a fast car as well, putting up the 6th-fastest time in Happy Hour before settling for 25th in qualifying. The only driver to miss the race was Josh Wise, whose #30 The Motorsports Group entry has yet to make a restrictor-plate start in 2016.
Starting 40th on Saturday was Regan Smith. The mechanical gremlins which saddled his Tommy Baldwin-prepared Chevrolet during practice at Sonoma returned for qualifying at Daytona: the team lost an engine and Smith failed to complete a lap. The engine change incurred a redundant penalty, sending Smith’s #7 Golden Corral Chevrolet to the rear of a field he already trailed. By the end of Lap 1, Smith moved past 39th-place starter Reed Sorenson, whose #55 RoyalTeakFurniture.com Toyota for Premium Motorsports was also kept in the rear for unapproved adjusments. By Lap 2, Sorenson moved up as well, giving the spot to Kevin Harvick.
Harvick, who had yet to finish last in a single NASCAR points race across the series’ top three divisions, held onto the spot for 17 laps, apparently trying to avoid the kind of wreck that eliminated him at Talladega. He held the position until Lap 19, when Landon Cassill’s #38 Taco Bell Ford, also from Front Row, slowed off Turn 4. Cassill reported that the car had shut down, and he missed the entrance to pit road. Fortunately, NASCAR threw its scheduled competition caution at the same moment, giving Cassill the Lucky Dog as he was pushed to pit road. Unfortunately, the #38 couldn’t benefit - he pulled onto pit road for a new battery, then when that didn’t work, was pushed to the garage. Still, the Front Row team didn’t give up, checking the wiring and eventually replacing the master switch. On Lap 61, Cassill returned to the track 42 laps behind. A few laps later, with all 40 starters still running, the team’s persistence paid off.
Chris Buescher had one of his best runs of the season going. He ran inside the Top 5 during the first part of the race and was still in contention on Lap 90. Unfortunately, trouble broke out in front of him. Contact between teammates Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson sent McMurray into the path of Jimmie Johnson, triggering a 22-car wreck. Buescher, who was closing on the lead pack some distance back, sped into the middle of the wreck. The hole in front of Buescher closed. Pinched between the cars of Greg Biffle and Regan Smith in the middle lane, Buescher piled in, leaving his #34 wrecked on the apron. Fortunately, he and the others involved walked away unharmed.
As the dust settled, Cassill was still in 40th, still more than 40 laps behind the leaders. The rest of the Bottom Five was filled with the final few starters involved in the accident, ranked by their position on the previous lap: 39th went to Kasey Kahne, who would fall to last for the first time in 2016 if Cassill remained on the track. Behind Kahne on the same lap were Buescher in 38th, Matt DiBenedetto in 37th, and Kevin Harvick in 36th. Harvick was the first of those involved the wreck to be listed as “out” on Lap 105, possibly due to the roof damage incurred by his contact with Brian Scott’s #44 Ford. If Buescher, DiBenedetto, and Kahne returned to the track for one more lap while Cassill finished, this would give Harvick his first NASCAR last-place finish. But on Lap 110, Buescher’s 38th-place car was also listed as “out,” meaning he would finish behind Harvick.
Kahne’s crew was determined to get him back out there to stay in touch with the Chase bubble. He returned to the track on Lap 130, 40 laps down, and both he and DiBenedetto immediately vaulted past Buescher, Harvick, and others. Kahne completed his 91st lap on the 131st circuit, vaulting him up the standings and dropping Buescher and Harvick to 39th and 38th, respectively. At that moment, Cassill was just one lap behind the pair, so on Lap 132, Buescher dropped to 40th for the final last-place finish of the day. 39th-place Harvick, on the same lap as Buescher, had come closer than ever before to finishing last. He remains perfect through 1,009 combined Cup, XFINITY, and Truck Series races.
Rounding out the Bottom Five behind Buescher and Harvick were Regan Smith, Brian Scott, and Paul Menard. They, along with 36th-place Jimmie Johnson, did not complete another lap after the accident.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #34 in a Cup Series race since October 27, 2013, when David Ragan’s Taco Bell Ford lost an engine after 109 laps, and first at this track since Ragan’s first-lap crash in the 2012 Daytona 500. It’s also the first last-place run for Front Row Motorsports in just over a year, dating back to June 28, 2015 when David Gilliland’s #38 Love’s Travel Stops Ford crashed out after 20 laps of the Toyota / Save Mart 350.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #34-Chris Buescher / 89 laps / crash
39) #4-Kevin Harvick / 89 laps / crash / led 1 lap
38) #7-Regan Smith / 89 laps / crash / led 1 lap
37) #44-Brian Scott / 89 laps / crash
36) #27-Paul Menard / 89 laps / crash
2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Matt DiBenedetto, Reed Sorenson (3)
2nd) Josh Wise (2)
3rd) Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Chris Buescher, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kyle Larson, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman, Cole Whitt (1)
2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Premium Motorsports (4)
2nd) BK Racing (3)
3rd) Richard Childress Racing, The Motorsports Group (2)
4th) Chip Ganassi Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Hendrick Motorsports, HScott Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports (1)
2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (11)
2nd) Toyota (4)
3rd) Ford (2)