Roush Fenway Racing made the bold decision to exercise a contract option and hire Chris Buescher prior to last season. It resulted in the departure of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the only driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race for RFR since 2014. And the move firmly set expectations that Buescher and teammate Ryan Newman should contend for the Playoffs.
Instead, RFR as a whole regressed last year with both drivers finishing outside the top 20 in the point standings. Buescher said the unique, pandemic-affected schedule was a deciding factor.
"I think you've seen the dominant teams [in 2020] are the teams that have been together for a long time," Buescher said last fall. "They have notebooks built up. They're unloading really close and not having to make big adjustments during a race, all things that we have not had the luxury of having."
But Buescher was steadfast that RFR wasn't lagging behind due to effort.
"Everybody has worked really hard at it and has put in countless hours in the [simulator] trying to replicate everything we can," he said. "But, at the end of the day, nothing replaces on-track seat time and face-to-face communication throughout a weekend. It's not an excuse, but it's the best understanding for us of why we've not been able to get going as quickly as we thought we would."
Luke Lambert will remain Buescher's crew chief this season. Formerly of Richard Childress Racing, Lambert didn't have much of a prior relationship with Buescher, and last season's pandemic-induced distancing protocols made building a rapport beyond the in-car radio and video calls difficult.
"It has stunted our growth as a team, in my opinion," Buescher said. "Just the fact that we're not able to go out and practice and go through changes. We're not allowed to be able to be around the crew chief and the team in the hauler during the weekend. You can't go out to dinner. You can't hardly build relationships, except just through screen-to-screen contact, so it's been a tough year."
With many of the changes still in place — only eight races are planned to offer practice and qualifying — the challenges for Buescher and the No. 17 team will largely remain. Teams won't have an on-track practice session on a non-dirt, non-superspeedway oval until the Coca-Cola 600 during Memorial Day weekend.
A potential bright point does lie ahead for Buescher in the schedule shift. Never has a Cup series schedule featured as many road courses as it will in 2021 with the addition of Road America, Circuit of the Americas, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. It could play into Buescher's hands: His first Xfinity Series win in 2014 came on the road course at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and he netted a fifth-place result during last season's Cup Series visit to the Daytona International Speedway road course. A surprise road course win would almost assuredly earn Buescher a spot in the Playoffs.
But gambling on that result isn't all that RFR is doing. Already the team has made changes such as promoting former crew chief Jimmy Fennig to oversee all aspects of competition. Fennig led the team's recent success in superspeedway cars, and he'll have plenty of work ahead.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2021 Cup Championship:200/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)