Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Remember when Chris Buescher had a single cup win to his name, and that was in a race shortened by insanely dense fog? And how a lot of people said that win didn’t really count, and that Buescher wasn’t really that great a driver, and that Brad Keselowski should have gotten a veteran to fill the seat in the No. 17?
Yeah, they’re pretty quiet lately, because Buescher has not only won three of the last five Cup Series races but has finished no worse than 11th in that stretch. Oh, and he enters the playoffs as the fourth seed after executing a textbook late-race pass to take the lead, and the checkers, in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
Buescher’s third win, his first on a superspeedway, came on a perfectly-timed move by him and teammate/team owner Keselowski. The pair pulled down from the top line with a furious run to take the lead in overtime, and coming to the checkered flag, it was clear that Keselowski, who is winless in 2023, was committed to making sure his team won the race, sticking to Buescher’s bumper instead of taking the risk of trying to pass him. Kevin Harvick, tasting one more victory, drove as hard as he could on the bottom line but couldn’t get by, and Buescher took his third win of 2023.
The win puts Buescher in good position heading into his first attempt at a Cup title. He’s fourth after the points reset and has momentum and confidence on his side. Winning on the first try is a daunting task, but Buescher has a great opportunity to learn and to take his team to the next level. Beyond that, it’s all icing.
And don’t forget Chase Elliott. Elliott entered the race knowing the only way he could make the playoff cut was to win. He set out to do just that, racing aggressively from the beginning.
He had two runner-up finishes at Daytona previously, but they were his only top-five finishes in 15 starts. Elliott’s average finish at Daytona was 22nd heading into the race, with six DNFs due to crashes. His record didn’t make him a favorite.
But Elliott outperformed expectations. He threaded his way through a 12-car pileup on lap 95 and was a constant threat for the rest of the night. He led a pair of laps and was in good position on the overtime restart, second and in position to make a move for a win. As it happened, Buescher made the move first and Elliott had to settle for fourth, but for Elliott it was the best race he’s run in a while. He was aggressive and raced with a hunger he hasn’t displayed this season.
What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?
As the season winds down, a few key questions have been answered. Josh Berry will take over the No. 4 for the retiring Harvick. Martin Truex Jr. will return for at least one more year in the No. 19. Legacy Motor Club will move to Toyota, and while they have an empty seat in the No. 42, there’s a strong possibility that Toyota will tap John Hunter Nemechek, an Xfinity Series title favorite, to fill it.
It seems as though the major pieces to the silly season puzzle have been solved.
Or have they?
Talk of more and bigger changes has heated up recently. If Aric Almirola leaves and his sponsors can’t be replaced, will Stewart-Haas racing sell at least one of its charters? If they do, who’s buying without a future charter agreement yet in place? Will IndyCar owner Michael Andretti enter the NASCAR game (and if so, who will drive for him)? How solid is the ground Alex Bowman stands on at Hendrick Motorsports? Who will ultimately land Shane van Gisbergen?
As it turns out, what looked like a relatively tame Silly Season is suddenly looking a lot more wild.
Where… did the other key players wind up?
Pole winner Chase Briscoe led more laps — 67 — than any other driver on the night. He had a fast car and looked like he might be the driver to sneak into the playoffs at the last minute. Unfortunately for Briscoe, when Preece’s wild ride began, the No. 14 was right in his teammate’s path, and Briscoe’s day was ended just a handful of laps shy of the finish in 30th place.
Bubba Wallace started the night on the playoff bubble in 16th — a misstep by anyone or a win by someone behind him in points meant he’d be watching the playoffs instead of participating. Wallace did everything right: He avoided trouble and ran as hard as he could, and in the end, it worked out as Buescher took his third win of the year.
Martin Truex Jr. sat atop driver points entering the weekend. Ending the regular season with the point lead nets a driver a nice trophy and, more importantly, a hefty 15 playoff points. Thanks to his stage one win and Denny Hamlin’s minor crash damage, Truex clinched the regular season title midrace. He went on to finish 24th.
When… was the moment of truth?
Saturday featured a stark contrast in racing’s reality. Fans and teams alike enter the weekend not wondering if there will be a multicar crash (or more), but rather when those crashes will occur.
The first crash on Saturday night didn’t come until the second half of the race, on lap 95, but it claimed plenty of cars. Gibbs needed every point he could get as he still had a shot of making the playoffs on points if the cards fell his way. He was leading the outside line coming to the green checkers to end stage two, and a stage win would net him 10 valuable points. Teammate Bell was behind Gibbs, a perfect scenario for Gibbs. But as they raced through turns 3 and 4, Bell got just a little off center. He corrected, but the damage was done. It was not really a bad push by Bell to Gibbs but not a good one either, and Gibbs is a rookie, so he needed a good one or none at all. Gibbs spun down across the track, hooking Ryan Blaney. Blaney slammed into the outside wall, and the official total of cars involved was 12. A handful were able to continue.
The second crash involved just three cars, but it was one of the most violent wrecks in recent memory. Erik Jones tagged Ryan Preece, who collected teammate Briscoe, but it was Preece for whom the situation turned scary. His No. 41 caught the edge of the infield grass and flipped … and flipped and flipped and flipped. All told, Preece made 11 complete rotations, some in the air, others while striking the ground, before coming to rest, thankfully on its wheels.
Preece eventually climbed from the car under his own power but was taken to Halifax Medical Center for tests and treatment. He was released early Sunday morning and reassured his fans that he was at least reasonably OK.
No further information about his injuries, if any, has been released.
Meanwhile, just hours before the race, former Cup Series champion Kurt Busch officially announced his retirement from the sport. Busch has been out the entire 2023 season with the lingering effects of a concussion suffered more than a year ago in a qualifying crash at Pocono Raceway. He had hoped to come back, at least on a part-time basis, but finally had to concede to his injury.
It’s not the way any driver wants to go out. It should have been solely on Busch’s terms. He should have been able to choose whether to make a farewell tour like Harvick is making this year or to simply say his goodbyes at the end of a season, walking quietly into the sunset.
But it decided for him. By a crash.
And yet NASCAR led into the weekend with commercials showing prior Daytona carnage, because that carnage is a near-certainty in recent years with rules packages designed to keep the cars in a seething pack, inches apart. The broadcast team at times seemed almost giddy talking about when the Big One would erupt. The broadcast signed off with a replay of a flipping car instead of a scene from victory lane or the brilliant closing run by Buescher and Keselowski. Fans say they don’t watch for the crashes and then proclaim Daytona and Talladega to be their favorite tracks.
Some will say that the moment of truth was when Preece climbed from his car, testament to the safety of the current racecar. The moment of truth came more than a year ago at Pocono, and the truth is that crashes shouldn’t be something anybody uses as a reason to watch racing.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
The playoffs kick off with the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. The opening round features Darlington, Kansas Speedway, and Bristol Motor Speedway. Last year, the opening round featured three winners from outside the playoff ranks as Jones, Wallace and Buescher shut out the title contenders.
Could that happen again? It’s unlikely, but it could (it was unlikely last year, too), and here’s why: there are teams and drivers capable of wins that didn’t pull them off sooner. Elliott is the obvious choice as he’s been a playoff-caliber driver on a yearly basis until missing out this year. But Bowman, Austin Dillon and Daniel Suarez all won last year and have not yet won in 2023. Jones also hasn’t won, and he’s shown improvement in recent weeks as well as being excellent at Darlington. Gibbs has been inching closer to a breakthrough win, too.
The playoff contenders have mostly had this year in hand among them, and they’re all looking to fire early warning shots. But there are plenty of drivers who could steal their thunder in the coming weeks.
How… does the playoff field look heading into NASCAR’s postseason?
Before NASCAR had a postseason, drivers and teams had ups and downs and consistency ruled the day, though a hot streak at the right time could certainly play in a driver’s favor. Then came the 10-race Chase format, and peaking at the right time — during the Chase — was the best way to win titles.
Under the current format, though, as long as a driver can squeak through the eliminations, only one race matters. A driver having a great run leading into the playoffs, or even in an early round might not even make the cut for the title. The Next Gen car has made extended streaks a rarity anyway.
What that means is it will be weeks before anyone can really say if there’s a favorite.
You can pinpoint the weaker teams more easily. Right now, Stenhouse, Wallace and Michael McDowell lack the season-long consistency that makes them look like strong contenders. But Wallace and McDowell have also shown strength in individual races, and Wallace won at Kansas last year and had top-five finishes at both Darlington and Kansas earlier this season. McDowell, should he make it through the first round by avoiding trouble, could certainly be a player in the next, because Talladega and the road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway represent his strengths as a driver.
You still want a title favorite, though. Things can and will change, but right now, Buescher is as good a pick as any. He’s got three wins, all recent, and both he and his team are hungry to prove they’re legit. They are. And the way it looks right now, they could go all the way. And because consistency still matters, Truex might just be in the best position since his 2017 title.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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