A steady wind blows over the sun-bleached asphalt of Auto Club Speedway, frequent gusts picking up decals and empty aluminum cans and errant newspaper pages. Welcome to the fifth round of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in wind-lashed Fontana, Calif., where RACER caught up with Chris Buescher, fourth year driver at the Cup level.
The demure and slow-talking Texan has found a happy home at JTG Daugherty where both he and the team share a common goal in 2019 of gaining critical mass. A winner in everything he climbed into during his nascent career, the 26 year-old is looking to Fontana as a chance to go for another gear, a higher level. We had a chance to speak with him before qualifying on Friday.
Whew, Chris, is it windy enough for you out there?
We weren’t expecting this! It’s been pretty wild. The gusts blowing from Turn 2 over to 4 are definitely messing up our Turns 3 and 4. I’m trying to guess what our balance is the best we can. Man, we don’t deal with this very often.
How badly does the wind affect the car?
Not so bad underneath the car as they are all sealed off pretty good, but you can really feel it going down the front straight. It’s intense how much [the headwind] slows the car down. Turn 1 and 2 are kind of guarded by the banking, luckily, but by the time we get over to 3 and 4 … Man, a couple of times, you got on the gas over there, got off the corner and the car stepped out. The wind died down a little bit [during qualifying], but if the winds are half of what they are right now, you’d still feel it.
You qualified well and are slotted in to 14th for Sunday race day. What’s your take on how all of that went?
[Qualifying] was a cluster. It was very crazy. A lot of games were played. It was wild. It was interesting.
This Auto Club Speedway oval — do you like it?
I do, I love this racetrack. I ran my first Cup race [here] back in 2015. It’s just a lot of fun. It’s got that surface like Atlanta, but it’s bigger. It’s got the same lines. You can run the wall, you can run the apron, you can mow the grass and you can hit whatever mark you want to hit, and there are ways to make it work.
This [new rules] package with the draft being as important as it’s going to be here and how dirty air will affect the cars will change some of it on Sunday, but I think we’re going to see a lot of the same old Fontana racing — sliding around, trying to get control of it. Trying to figure out how to make speed while you’re sliding, that’s the hardest thing. I mean you can slide around and have a fun time, but going fast while you’re doing it, that’s the hard part.
Four races into the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, coming off a relatively strong showing at Phoenix, how would you write up your status report?
You know if it wouldn’t have been for Daytona and getting caught up in that big one, we’d be at the start of a fantastic year. Daytona is what it is, but I’ve been really happy with where we’ve been with JTG Daugherty Racing at the beginning of this season. Everybody has done a fantastic job through the off-season and getting everything rolling in the right direction.
We’ve had some really good runs. We had a top 10 at Atlanta. At Phoenix last week we came out 16th for a track that is probably my worst, or second worst on the circuit. Phoenix hates me and it’s mutual. So for us to come out of there 16th and run competitively and have speed in practice, that was really good.
I’m happy with where are at right now. We want to get to the top 15 and be consistent there, and we’re close.
How does the team stand in the areas of funding and technical support?
We have some really awesome partners, Kroger coming on board with all of their programs, all of our continuing sponsors — Busch’s Baked Beans, Clorox, Scott Products. We have excellent partners that really push our program to be the best it can be, and they all do a fantastic job with it. We really enjoy working with them, working to help them sell their products, while at the same time, they help us elevate our program.
We’re not wasteful, but we have very good resources and we’re utilizing them to the best of our ability. You always want a little bit more and you can always ask for a little bit more. But we are in good shape this season. We’re trying to build some momentum early on, trying not to have to dig our way out of a hole.
It’s working and that’s been nice.
Hey, what’s it like with the revised NASCAR-dictated horsepower numbers and aerodynamic tweaks in the new rules package?
It’s different. We were borderline 1000 horsepower when I was racing ARCA (Note: Buescher was the 2015 ARCA Champion) and we were running a half-mile short track with holes in the track surface that would break your ankle if you stepped in them. Now with this 500hp package on these big tracks, it has changed our game a lot … and I get it. I think the racing has been pretty good overall, so I think a lot of it has worked.
You’ve won in everything you have done throughout your career. Is it hard to be patient here at the Cup level — I mean, it’s so hard to win one of these races…
Yeah, I had more realistic expectations coming to the Cup side. These are the best drivers in the country. These are the best oval racers, the best short track racers – this is the top of our sport. To come in here and expect to win 10 races every year right off the bat? That’s not really realistic.
That being said, I won one race here in Cup (Note: Pocono in 2016) and I want to do it again. It’s been a couple years.
You know, everybody here came up racing and winning in different series, and they’re all trying to get to that next level. It’s just really tough to put everything together.
Realistically, what’ll make you happy walking out of this garage on Sunday evening?