Kyle Larson’s 10-win season and the NASCAR Cup Series title easily earned him the distinction of being the most improved driver last season. But if you want to look a bit deeper in the field for a racer who might be more of a contender in 2022 than you’d initially think, take a look at Chris Buescher.
The Ford driver and 2015 Xfinity Series champion has both good results and external factors falling into place around him. One of those outside forces is the arrival of former Cup champion Brad Keselowski as his newest teammate. Keselowski purchased a minority stake in the Roush Fenway Racing operation (it’s now called Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing, or RFK Racing) and will take over the No. 6 car for the team this season. It’s an arrival that’s bringing significant attention to the RFK team, and it seems likely that Keselowski’s experience as a 35-time Cup winner will be an asset that can lift the entire operation.
But it’s just not just a new and heralded teammate that signifies the potential for Buescher this season. A year ago, his No. 17 team showed enough real and sustained improvement that it remained in Playoff contention until midsummer.
While Buescher’s most traditional 2021 stats (0 wins, one top 5 and eight top 10s) don’t show the improvement, deeper and more advanced measures do. Take, for example, that Buescher jumped his average running position from 20.7 to 17.9 between 2020 and 2021 while seeing a much less substantial average starting position change (18.6 in 2020 to 18.1 in 2021). The improved on-track positioning translated directly to Buescher ramping his average finish from 19.6 to 17.3 — good for the single-best full-season average finish of Buescher’s six-year career as a full-time Cup driver. Buescher also saw his laps spent racing inside the top 15 rise by 14 percentage points.
Those improved results meant Buescher made a year-to-year leap in total lead-lap finishes from 20 to 27. A significant gain in lead-lap finishes is critical because it means Buescher was more frequently positioned to leverage late-race restarts or pit strategy for better overall finishes.
Buescher’s best results started to come in the second half of the year. He drove his No. 17 to a runner-up finish in the rough-and-tumble final laps of the regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway but ended up credited with a 40th-place finish when his car failed post-race inspection. The next week, he was back with a good finish with a ninth-place run at Darlington Raceway, and he then landed a sixth-place finish when the series returned to the pack and draft racing at Talladega Superspeedway. Buescher followed the Talladega finish with a surprising third-place run at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval — his second road course top 5 in two years.
The Charlotte finish was notable also because it marked Buescher’s reunion with crew chief Scott Graves after a late-season team swap at Roush. Graves was Buescher’s crew chief during the 2015 Xfinity Series championship. Graves, a two-time Xfinity Series champion crew chief, is slated to hold those duties on Buescher’s car in 2022 as the team transitions to Keselowski’s involvement and the Next Gen car.
Keselowski is confident that he and Buescher have pieces to be competitive. “Things are moving fast and heavy, and we are making so many improvements with the company,” Keselowski says. “I’m very optimistic that we’re going to be able to fire off the season on Day 1 and be contenders.”