Race Weekend Central

2-Headed Monster: Does Chris Buescher Need to Start Driving Differently?

For Chris Buescher, the last two NASCAR Cup Series races have been an exercise in futility. Seemingly doing everything the right way, from racing Kyle Larson clean at Kansas Speedway, to trying to give his team owner an assist past Tyler Reddick instead of making an aggressive three-wide pass, and it’s the same result: a winless weekend for the No. 17 Ford.

While he’s generally one of the first drivers you think of when it comes to driving clean, is it time for Buescher to start blasting guys out of the way? Since this most recent event occurred during throwback weekend at Darlington Raceway, what better way than to have two of the longest-tenured Frontstretch writers on the staff, Amy Henderson and Vito Pugliese weigh in on this week’s 2-Headed Monster.

This Aggression Will Not Stand … Man.

Chris Buescher is usually one of the most even-keeled, unshakable drivers in the Cup Series, so seeing him talk down to Tyler Reddick like a Little League dad was a bit out of character – which may be a good thing.

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Two weeks in a row now the No. 17 team was denied victory by contact from another competitor. With Kyle Larson at Kansas, it was two consecutive door slams coming to the line for the closest finish in history. Buescher was disappointed but seemed to be okay with the tactics for the win. At Darlington with seven laps to go he did brush the wall a bit, but then contact from Reddick caused additional contact and a big drop in momentum that allowed team owner Brad Keselowski to skate by for his first win in the Next Gen era for a points paying race.

That may have been the last straw.

One thing a driver cannot do is allow themselves to get used up and pushed around, particularly in NASCAR. Once there’s a reputation of non-violence they tend to get exploited. Long-gone are the days when drivers like Terry Labonte or Mark Martin would pull down and let a faster car by – only to blow by them again 10 laps later. The give and take of yesterday was every bit the throwback that Larson’s yellow and red Chevrolet was this past weekend.

It’s a world that no longer exists.

Keselowski was asked in the media center if Buescher needed to change, to which he responded, “Chris just needs to keep being Chris.” That makes sense when you consider the source. Brad is an owner and comes from a family that has long fielded their own cars. From his father Bob, Uncle Ron, and brother Brian, he comes from a you break it, you fix it family.

Couple that with being business partners with Jack Roush – who would notoriously threaten his drivers with making them pay for wrecked racecars – it’s not an environment that treats cars as weapons or disposable income. Buescher has been in the fold of the Roush organization for a decade now and was hired to replace the former driver of the No. 17 who had a habit of generating a lot of overtime for the fabrication team.

There’s a lot of life lessons in the Coen Brothers film, The Big Lebowski. Be it bowling, auto theft, or taming unchecked aggression, it’s a movie that has remained timeless for a reason.

Remember a few years ago when Bubba Wallace and Kyle Larson got into it at Las Vegas? Larson has had a reputation of putting opponents in situations forcing them to lift that wasn’t well received. It really wasn’t well received by Wallace after be bounced off the wall exiting turn 4. What happened is of course regrettable, but notice the two haven’t had any similar run ins? Wallace even congratulated Larson a few weeks ago on pit road. Ever since then, I don’t really remember him having any on-going run ins with other drivers.

It’s not hard to see what the deterrent was.

Now I’m not advocating that Buescher needs to start right hooking guys into the wall, but I’m sure he’s made a mental note of who’s going for a ride if it’s coming down to the win in the next couple of months. With Ford’s new-found speed and RFK Racing leading the Blue Oval Brigade, I am confident that Buescher will win a couple of races and be firmly seated for the championship.

I know a couple of guys who hope he is too, otherwise they could find themselves on the short end of the stick in Round 1. –Vito Pugliese

Buescher Doesn’t Have to Drive Dirty to Win

Could Chris Buescher have had a couple more wins if he’d been willing to use his bumper more? Maybe. Maybe not — Buescher cut a tire racing Tyler Reddick at Darlington and that could just as easily have happened if he’d been the more aggressive of the two. The same goes for Kansas; pinching another driver into the wall isn’t without risk.

Sure, he could have another win under his belt.

But he shouldn’t change his style.

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Buescher is a good driver. He won three races last year and finished the year seventh in driver points. The way he’s run the last couple of weeks, the wins are going to come. And he doesn’t need to be a dirty driver to get them.

Buescher chose to race clean on Sunday, and it was the right choice for a couple of reasons. First of all, let’s talk about “clean.” Being a clean driver doesn’t mean not racing hard or not being aggressive. It means not crossing a line.

And in the long run, it means respect.

It’s long been an unwritten rule that you race the other driver the way he races you. What that means is driver have long memories, and if a driver crosses the line too often, when he needs a little extra racing room or a little drafting help, he might not get it. And that can cost wins as surely as not using the bumper.

Drivers with a reputation for being fair and clean, on the other hand, might find that little bit of help. They’re also often fan favorites. Mark Martin might have had a few more wins if he’d wantonly wrecked others to get them. But what Martin gained by his hard-nosed but clean driving style outweighs a couple of trophies.

Martin earned a lot of fans during his career because he didn’t put others in the wall on a weekly basis or take cheap shots on track. That’s not just a nice footnote to his career. Martin’s popularity made him valuable to sponsors, and sponsors pay the bills.

Sure, Martin was a winner with Hall of Fame numbers. He’s also not the only driver to benefit from a forgiving driving style. One that instantly comes to mind is Johnny Benson Jr. Benson only had one Cup Series win and a best points finish of 11th, but he built a nice Cup career because he was a fan favorite. Sponsors picked up on that, giving him longevity despite his modest numbers and a Truck Series opportunity in which he earned a title.

Benson was likeable because he drove clean.

Despite his slip-up on Sunday, Reddick isn’t a dirty driver either, and his opportunities are no accident. Michael McDowell has had opportunities because people like him. 

Yes, the bad guys can be popular too. Dale Earnhardt’s legions of fans and stable sponsorship didn’t care about his reputation. His kid, on the other hand … Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s on-track reputation was vastly different and he was at least as popular as his father, maybe moreso. 

There’s no reason for Buescher to change. He’s got a growing fan base and solid sponsorship, and they’re going to be loyal because of who he is on the racetrack. The ability to run up front on a weekly basis is still new to Buescher; he’ll get better at calculating when to be more aggressive.

Buescher doesn’t need to cross a line to win. He’ll be just fine. –Amy Henderson

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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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sdelfin

Buescher’s driving style has served him well in the RFK era. In fact, whatever reputation he developed driving for smaller teams may have been why they retained him in the 17 when Brad took over. I think Chris’ style will have long-term benefits as we have seen with other drivers who have earned the respect of their peers(who care). But in this case, there’s really no reason to question his approach. Reddick chose a low-percentage move and Buescher didn’t let him get away with it, but he definitely got doored. There’s not much the 17 could have done differently there. Buescher won in 2022, and started to become a fixture at the front of the field last season. It looks like that may be the case again this year, so I’d say his style is working just fine. It’s also a style I appreciate.

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