Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Fair or not, Chris Buescher Is a Championship Contender

1. Chase Elliott Seems Like He’s Going To Win a Race After It’s Too Late

It’s really easy for fans and observers of NASCAR, or any sport, really, to think they know what lies inside an athlete’s heart. We can try to parse the meaning inside certain quotes or read body language like we’re behavioral scientists, but only the people who go out and perform really know what’s going on with them.

The task is even more difficult when a driver doesn’t really let the public know what makes them tick, which is the case with Chase Elliott. Despite his much-ballyhooed status as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver ever since Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired and freed up that award, Elliott isn’t one to show a ton of obvious emotion, whether things are going well or not.

This season has unquestionably seen tons of the latter, which is why Elliott, a perennial playoff participant, was racing Saturday night (Aug. 26) in need of a victory at Daytona International Speedway to make the postseason. As is the norm, he gave off a pretty matter-of-fact demeanor ahead of his last chance and was only mildly disappointed in an “oh, well” way afterward.

If you watched the race, though, you saw someone who certainly gave it all he got. Elliott had speed, made a masterful job of avoiding the night’s big multi-vehicle accident, and was around at the end with a shot at the victory. The fact that he couldn’t get to the front in overtime was more a matter of circumstances and not desire.

In short, he looked hungry, which is something the racing world (this writer included) has questioned over the last month or two. It’s quite possible, perhaps even likely, that he’s still going to grab a win this year if he can keep that up — it’s just going to come too late to matter in terms of the championship, which would be strangely appropriate considering how this season has gone for him.

See also
Chase Elliott Misses Driver Playoffs, Hopes to Compete for Owners Championship

2. Chris Buescher Has To Be Considered a Championship Contender

Expectations are funny things because of how they can change on the fly. At the start of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, no one would have called Chris Buescher and Brad Keselowski championship contenders. And why would they? Neither driver even made the playoffs in 2022, and RFK Racing was still in the very early stages of building itself back up once Keselowski joined as driver and part-owner.

Following his overtime triumph at Daytona, however, Buescher enters the NASCAR playoffs as the No. 4 seed. He’s unquestionably the hottest driver in the sport after winning three times in the last five weeks — more than he had previously won in all his top series seasons combined — and has shown he’s a well-rounded threat by conquering the field at an intermediate, a short track and a superspeedway.

Just getting both RFK cars into the Round of 16 would have been a logical goal when the season started. Now, however, it’s got to be seen as a disappointment if Buescher doesn’t make it to Phoenix Raceway to race for the title.

Is that realistic? Buescher should have enough of an advantage in playoff points to make the Round of 12 barring two or more complete disasters. Once he’s there, he’s got Talladega Superspeedway as a place where despite its unpredictability, he should be one of the favorites. He’s been very good at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL as well.

The Round of 8 looks a little dicier, as it consists of three tracks that Buescher hasn’t exactly historically. But Buescher said himself during his post-race press conference that he has to be considered a contender because of what his team has accomplished so far.

(And by the way, if you squint, you can see a potential path through for Keselowski as well based on where he’s run well in the past.)

Is that fair? Maybe not, considering how Buescher has never been in this situation and RFK hasn’t had a car this good since it was still just Roush Racing. But success automatically reframes expectations, and now that’s just something everyone in the organization will have to view as a good problem to have.

3. It’s Really Unfair for Daytona To Be the Cutoff Race — But Not for the Reason You Think

When the summer Daytona race became the regular season finale, it was a bit of evil genius by NASCAR. It gave the 400-miler more importance to balance out the fact that the Daytona 500 is always the season opener, but it also gave teams needing a buzzer-beating win the hope that they can pull it off.

It’s only now that it’s clear how cruel it is to dangle that carrot in front of teams who have been winless for the entire season to that point. If the last race before the playoffs was literally anywhere else but Daytona or Talladega, the must-win drivers would know that their gooses are likely cooked unless they turn in a performance that their season-long results would suggest isn’t likely.

But because it’s a superspeedway, the “anyone can win if they’re still running at the end” philosophy is in full effect. You could tell how prevalent it is because literally every win-or-go-home driver who had media availability at Daytona was adamant that they believed they could pull it off.

It’s not completely false hope, because Austin Dillon just did it last year. It is agonizing, though, seeing so many teams have their dreams dashed all at once. The randomness of Daytona would be a lot easier to take if there wasn’t so much riding on such a longshot last chance.

4. Chicago Residents Don’t Want the Street Race Back, Apparently

One of the favorite catchphrases around the Tylwalk household (and in Jurassic Park) is, “They spent so much time worrying about if they could, they didn’t think about whether they should.” That’s relevant to next year’s NASCAR schedule, particularly when it comes to the Chicago street race.

By most metrics, the inaugural event this year was a success, as it did well on TV, seemed to attract attention outside the usual stock car racing bubble, and gave us the rare excitement of a NASCAR outsider winning a race. Yet all of that came at the cost of disrupting life in one of the biggest cities in the country for several days, and it would be understandable if some of the citizens of Windy City would be glad to see the street race move somewhere else.

As it turns out, many of them would like that. Crain’s Business Chicago reports that a recent survey of Chicago residents found that 58% of the respondents felt negatively impacted by the race, with more than half of them saying they would prefer if the race did not return in 2024.

There are a few caveats. The survey was open to anyone and may have had people who were more likely to grind an axe with the race response. Still, this feels like one of those “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” deals, and NASCAR should ensure that anywhere they stage the next street race is a place that really wants the event there.

5. Which One of the Bottom 4 Will Advance from the Round of 16?

See also
Bubba Wallace Relieved After 'Hardest Week I've Had in a Long Time' Ends in Playoff Berth

Generally speaking, the drivers who squeak into the Cup Series playoffs in the 13th through 16th spots don’t last too long. That’s bad news for Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kevin Harvick and Bubba Wallace, who occupy those positions heading to Darlington Raceway.

So, can any of them break up the chalk and head on to the Round of 12? An argument could be made for any of them. Both McDowell and Stenhouse have shown continued overall improvement in 2023 after being one-trick ponies, for the most part, the past few campaigns — or perhaps two-trick ponies on superspeedways and road courses. Harvick is just a few years removed from winning two of the next three events on the schedule and was runner-up at Darlington earlier this year. He’s sure to be the emotional favorite as well.

Still, the driver in this group with the best combination of recent consistency and good tracks appears to be Wallace. He comes into the playoffs with five top-20 finishes in a row, which he’ll need to keep going to avoid elimination. Wallace also won at Kansas Speedway last year and had top-five finishes at both Kansas and Darlington earlier in 2023.

Yes, he may have just squeaked into the playoffs, but don’t be surprised if Wallace is still competing in meaningful races even when we get to Texas Motor Speedway.

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Was looking at some of the other point standings on the Newsletter this week. If it wasn’t for stage points, Buescher would have finished the regular season 15 points behind Truex in 2nd. He’s scored less stage points then any other driver in the playoffs besides Stenhouse, and less then even some non playoff drivers like Suarez and Bowman. Dude started racing a few years too late.

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