By Dustin Albino
Parity, it can be a beautiful thing. And for Roush Fenway Racing, it means opportunity.
When entering the third race of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season on Sunday (Feb. 28) at Homestead-Miami Speedway, few had Chris Buescher as one of the breakout drivers: just over 4% of people had him in their DraftKings lineup. But that didn’t stop the No. 17 Ford from passing 11 cars in the opening 53 laps of the race and taking the lead from Brad Keselowski.
Buescher led 15 laps before a caution flew for fluid on the backstretch, and he lost the lead to Keselowski on the restart. However, the No. 17 car powered by the No. 2 car, winning the opening stage for Buescher’s second career stage victory.
When the second stage began, it was more of the same: Buescher leading. The Texan led a career high 57 laps on Sunday. In 188 prior Cup starts, he’d led just 64 circuits, even with a win at Pocono Raceway in 2016.
“It was a really good start for us, and I was really happy with the speed we had in the daylight,” Buescher said post race. “I think we knew this would be a pretty good test for what we were able to have made gains on during the offseason, and I think that showed that a lot of things we hit on and are headed in the right direction.”
With finishes of first and sixth in the opening two stages, Buescher scored the most stage points he’s ever scored in a single race (15). But, the No. 17 slid back during the final stage, finishing the race with a disappointing 19th.
“Unfortunately, the night did not do us a whole lot of favors, and dirty air was really rough on us there at the end,” Buescher added. “But we still learned a ton out of it. A little bit of fender damage that may have slowed us down. It’s an excuse basically.
“We’ve got to keep working at it hard, but I am really proud of everybody and everybody back at the shop. They did a really nice job on this racecar. I think we made some awesome gains. We’ve just got to keep our heads down going to [Las] Vegas and see what we can apply and definitely work on what we can make better as the racing goes on.”
At the same time, Buescher’s RFR teammate Ryan Newman had a strong performance, as well. The No. 6 car hovered around the top 10 for the majority of the 400-mile race, finishing a strong seventh.
That top-10 effort is Newman’s best finish on an intermediate track since November 2019, also at Homestead.
“More than anything, I’m glad and excited for a good run, it’s what we needed,” Newman said following the event. “Our guys have been working extra hard all offseason, and to come down here and collectively show what we were able to do says a lot about the progress we’ve made. We still have work to do yet, but I’m happy with a top 10.”
Through three Cup races this season, there have been three unique winners in Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell and William Byron. But Roush’s performance on Sunday was a glimpse from the past. The last time an RFR car led at least 57 laps on an intermediate track was in the fall of 2013, when Carl Edwards paced the field for 68 laps at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Buescher fully believes that Sunday’s performance could lead to more success in the immediate future.
“At the end of the day, it is very frustrating because we definitely felt like we had a car capable of winning early on,” he added. “And at the end, we definitely weren’t in that good a position and didn’t have that confidence.
“The important part is it’s a long offseason, and with this being our first mile-and-a-half, we definitely have a lot of things that we learned from. We’re definitely going to dissect this one very thoroughly and learn from it even more so that we can have more days like this going forward and then just finish them off on the tail end just as strong as we started today.”
After three races, Buescher sits 15th in the championship standings with Newman in 20th.