At the beginning of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, the stage was set to have a few surprise playoff contenders. The introduction of the Next Gen car helped to level the playing field in 2022, and several drivers enjoyed career years. The season featured five drivers who both won their first race and participated in the postseason for the first time.
As the green flag fell on 2023, many were wondering if any of the mid-pack drivers would follow Ross Chastain’s example and enjoy a dramatic breakout year.
Chris Buescher and RFK Racing answered the call.
Buescher and the No. 17 team elevated their performance in a big way, not just compared to 2022 but also to any previous season of Buescher’s Cup career. He scored three wins, nine top fives and 17 top 10s, all personal bests for a single season by a wide margin.
A model of consistency throughout the year, Buescher qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2016 and advanced all the way to the Round of 8.
It has been an entire decade since any of Jack Roush’s drivers had this kind of success, but Buescher clearly found a spark in the second year of Roush’s partnership with new owner/driver Brad Keselowski. The No. 17 team’s ascendance was the biggest positive surprise among driver performances during 2023.
Buescher did not reach the postseason in 2022, but his victory at Bristol Motor Speedway did snap a six-year winless drought. The win had to give RFK some hope for the next year, especially as Keselowski hobbled through a miserable season.
Indeed, Buescher and Keselowski looked much more equal during the early weeks of 2023, keeping the playoff bubble in sight as the weeks ticked away. Halfway through the regular season, the Nos. 6 and 17 were 13th and 14th on the playoff grid respectively, and it appeared that both RFK cars had a chance to sneak into the playoffs.
But Buescher did not simply sneak in; he busted the door down and asserted himself as a title contender.
The real turning point in his season came during the leadup to the playoffs when he won three times in a five-race stretch. The first of those victories came at Richmond Raceway in the final weekend of July. Aside from the two stage breaks, the race did not have a single caution for cause until nine laps to go. Track position was king throughout the afternoon, and drivers who were off the pace of the leaders had little chance to improve their cars.
Yet Buescher seemed to defy the conventions of the race. He clawed his way forward from the 26th starting position and did not take the lead until lap 305, but it soon became clear that the No. 17 was the car to beat late in the event.
The final caution threatened to spoil Buescher’s afternoon, but his crew took care of business by getting the No. 17 off pit road first. When the race resumed with just three laps to go, Buescher got a great launch and held off Denny Hamlin for the victory, scoring his third career win and locking himself into the playoffs.
Still, it would have been easy to assume that Richmond would be Buescher’s only win of 2023. Roush’s team had lacked race-winning speed for a long time everywhere other than the drafting tracks. Prior to Richmond, Buescher had only led 13 laps anywhere in 2023 other than Daytona International Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway. Getting the occasional win was a great step forward for RFK, but the Richmond victory was not an indicator that the team had reached weekly contender status.
The next week at Michigan International Speedway silenced further doubts. Buescher won for the second week in a row, the first back-to-back wins by a Roush driver since Carl Edwards at the end of the 2010 season. This time, Buescher prevailed in a duel against Martin Truex Jr., who was having his own summer hot streak.
The Nos. 17 and 19 cycled to the front of the pack once a round of green flag pit stops finished with 19 laps to go. Truex doggedly pursued Buescher and got side-by-side with him with a dozen laps to go, but Truex was forced to back off the gas when his car got loose under Buescher’s. Truex fought his way back and got within striking distance on the final lap, but Buescher held him off to take the checkered flag.
Buescher’s Michigan victory was huge for RFK. The 2-mile track in the Irish Hills used to be one of Roush’s best, but its last of 13 wins there prior to 2023 came 10 years ago. In the span of eight days, Buescher had demonstrated that both he and RFK had the ability to win at a short track and a high-speed oval. He suddenly looked like a whole new driver, charging toward the postseason with a revitalized team.
Buescher’s third and final win of 2023 came three weeks later at Daytona. This win was less surprising considering both Buescher’s and RFK’s knack for speed on superspeedways, but it was electrifying nonetheless. After an overtime restart, Keselowski shoved Buescher into the lead, and the RFK teammates held off a snarling pack of cars all the way to the finish line.
Thanks to that third victory, Buescher began the postseason with 21 playoff points, fourth most out of anyone. Not even a year removed from a six-season winless streak, Buescher had a real shot to win it all.
Ultimately, a championship was not in the cards for the No. 17 team, but it certainly did not perform poorly in the playoffs. Buescher posted a respectable five top 10s in the last 10 races, concluding the season seventh in points. That is the best points finish by any Roush driver since Matt Kenseth’s last season in the No. 17 in 2012. Kenseth was also the last Roush driver to earn three or more wins in a single season, a mark Buescher matched this year.
More than anything else, Buescher’s rise in 2023 felt satisfying as an instance of fulfilled potential. Buscher had spent most of his Cup career racing for struggling or underfunded teams, and this season was the first indication of what he can achieve at NASCAR’s highest level when given good equipment.
The No. 17’s success is also a great sign that the changes Keselowski has made at RFK have the team heading in the right direction.
Sustaining that growth into 2024 will be the next challenge, but it won’t be such a surprise to see Buescher and Keselowski battling for more wins next season.
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.
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