Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: Comparing the Breakouts of Chris Buescher & Brad Keselowski

Darlington Raceway may be The Track Too Tough to Tame, but it was not tough enough to slow down Chris Buescher on Sunday night (Sept. 3). Buescher raced to a third-place finish in the Cook Out Southern 500, continuing a breakout that has suddenly lifted the No. 17 team into the championship conversation. Over his last six races, Buescher has won three times and finished no worse than 11th. He packed on the playoff points during this run, launching from one banked point to 16, plus another five for finishing sixth in the regular season standings. It’s an enormous turnaround for a driver who had only one NASCAR Cup Series victory a year ago.

In a short amount of time, seeing Buescher finish in the top five has gone from an anomaly to a regular occurrence. Prior to 2023, Buescher had 10 top fives, including two wins, through the first 257 races of his Cup Series career. Now, through 27 races this year, he already has seven top fives.

Notice also that Buescher’s hot streak encompasses a variety of track types. He has won at Richmond Raceway (a short track), Michigan International Speedway (a traditional high-speed oval), and Daytona International Speedway (a drafting track with pack racing). Buescher’s other strong results over the last few weeks have come at two road courses and Darlington, which is unlike anything else at which the Cup Series races. The No. 17 Ford looks like a weekly contender for the first time since Matt Kenseth last drove it in 2012.

See also
Thinkin' Out Loud at Darlington: A Night of Silly Preventable Mistakes

While Buescher himself deserves a lot of credit for the breakout, it’s obvious that Brad Keselowski’s influence has played a key role in revitalizing Jack Roush’s team. The rebranded RFK Racing has put multiple cars in the playoffs for the first time since 2014. Keselowski has not yet won a full-field race with the team he owns. However, his return to victory lane feels like only a matter of time.

Watching Buescher’s breakout feels very reminiscent of Keselowski’s own sudden ascendence from mid-pack racer to contender in the Cup Series. Keselowski famously earned his first win in just his fifth Cup Series start, scoring a dramatic victory at Talladega Superspeedway with James Finch’s team in 2009. But the following year, when Keselowski went full-time Cup racing with Team Penske, he struggled mightily. His only top 10s were back-to-back 10th-place finishes in the 32nd and 33rd races of the season. It was obvious that Keselowski had great potential, but he and Penske needed to get the team chemistry right to be successful together.

Keselowski’s 2011 season began much like the previous one, with his team struggling to earn good finishes. However, at Kansas Speedway in June, a fuel mileage gamble from new crew chief Paul Wolfe netted Keselowski his second career win. It was a huge victory for Keselowski and the No. 2 team, but there was still work to be done to reach the postseason. Qualification for the Chase at that time took the top 10 in points plus two wildcards, the two winningest drivers from 11th-20th in points. Even after the win at Kansas, Keselowski was only 21st in the standings.

As the summer went on, Keselowski struggled to make up ground in the points standings. Things got significantly worse when he suffered a hard crash while testing at Road Atlanta during the first week of August. Keselowski’s broken left ankle swelled up like a watermelon, and it seemed unlikely that he would be able to race for a few weeks, much less qualify for the Chase. Yet just days later, Keselowski not only competed at Pocono Raceway but won the event. His second win of 2011 vaulted him into the top 20 in points and put him in the driver’s seat for a wild card spot.

Even more remarkably, the Pocono win quickly turned Keselowski into a top-five machine. The next three races saw him take second at Watkins Glen International, third at Michigan, and another win at Bristol Motor Speedway. Finishes of sixth and 12th closed out the regular season for the No. 2 team, with Keselowski easily taking one of the wild card Chase spots.

See also
The Underdog House: Erik Jones & Darlington — A Match Made in Heaven

Keselowski did not win another race in 2011, but he kept a lot of the momentum from his late summer surge. With four races to go, he stood third in points, a single point ahead of eventual champ Tony Stewart. But that was when the No. 2 train finally ran out of steam. Keselowski failed to finish in the top 15 during the last four races and drifted back to fifth in points when the season ended. Still, he had exceeded expectations in every way imaginable, and his 2011 breakout set the stage for Keselowski to win the Cup Series title the following year.

It feels like Buescher is following the same path this season that Keselowski did a dozen years ago. Like Keselowski, Buescher won a race early in his career and took some time to get back to victory lane. Although he has shown potential before, Buescher was not a popular pick to make the playoffs this year, and few would have predicted that he’d go on a winning spree just before the postseason began. Yet Buescher and the No. 17 team have, like Keselowski, clearly unlocked something mid-season that has turned them into contenders (thankfully, without the injury).

The question now becomes whether Buescher remains a regular contender for wins. Will he backslide in 2024 or continue to follow Keselowski’s example and remain one of the fastest drivers in NASCAR? Buescher’s performance in the playoffs will likely give us a hint. He may not win the championship this year, but if he stays in contention deep into the postseason, it will be a good sign that he and the No. 17 team are for real. It is a path that Keselowski knows well and one that just might take his teammate to superstardom in the next few years.   

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ronald Thornton

RFK should be glad to be in the conversation, but work is still ahead to continue conversation. Confucius say!

Share via