Chris Buescher is no stranger to the preseason NASCAR hype game. A fresh dose of optimism about the season ahead flows inside every shop throughout the industry at this time of year.
“The optimism is always there – it has to be – but the optimism is always curved by results, and there have been tough years here,” Buescher says. “I don’t think anybody will shy away from it. It has not turned around nearly as quickly as you would have hoped at times.
“A lot of people talk about how cyclical our sport can be, and we’ve just been trying to work toward making it our cycle and our turn back on top. It’s been 10 years or so at this level where it’s just not been there, and it’s been a hard road working on it and trying to get back to that point.”
While no stranger to talking the talk, it’s different for Buescher this time around. Ahead of his eighth full season in the NASCAR Cup Series and the second for what is now known as RFK Racing, Buescher believes the soundbite he’s giving.
“Last year didn’t put us on top, but there were big strides in the right direction,” he says. “The Bristol win was big, but it was being in contention to win a lot of other races. They’ve had some speedway wins here, and that’s always been a strong suit, even through some of the hard times. Ricky [Stenhouse Jr.] got two speedway wins… and that put a spark back in everybody, but it was still tough in other places as an organization.
“After last year, especially the last 60% of it, I feel like the optimism is warranted. It feels like it really is there. There is concrete evidence that says we should be optimistic about what we’re getting ready to head into. Whereas a lot of years past, it’s always being hopeful we made the right decisions and believing in everybody.
“We got to keep after it. We can’t keep still. The optimism is warranted this year.”
There was plenty for the organization to digest after last season. RKF Racing wasn’t immune to being hot one week and cold the next, struggling to put together consistency. But while neither Buescher nor Brad Keselowski made the playoffs, there were flashes of potential.
Buescher won the fall Bristol race in which he and Keselowski combined to lead 278 of 500 laps. It was a season in which Buescher led over 100 laps for the first time in his career (194).
Between the two on the season, Buescher and Keselowski led 418 laps. The last time the company led more than 400 laps in a season? One has to go back to 2013 when they were a three-car stable, and former Carl Edwards led 524 laps alone that year.
In the five seasons before 2022, Roush drivers combined to lead more than 100 laps just twice.
Buescher finished the year with the most top-10 finishes (10) and top-five finishes (three) he’s earned in a single season. He also earned career-best finishes at eight racetracks.
Given what Buescher and the No. 17 team accomplished and the continued push behind the scenes to rebuild the company, Buescher says the mindset of chasing wins every weekend is returning. Things are now much calmer than a year ago when the team was introducing a new race car while integrating new leadership and personnel inside the company.
The NASCAR Cup Series hits the L.A. Coliseum this weekend and the season-opening Daytona 500 is two weeks away. So if Buescher truly believes the company is in a good spot, it won’t be long until the results do the talking.
“When you look back at last year, there was a certain amount of luck last season with surviving races,” Buescher says. “It was a lot of luck in whether you were the one who lost a tire, if you were the one who had a steering issue, or one of the teams that had to learn about the struggles with the new car that weekend and took you out of it. That was tough. I think we look back at our season, and there are 10 or 12 races where we had some kind of issues. Some of those were self-inflicted, but 10 or 12 races that we did not have very good execution ultimately, for whatever reason.
“We had speed at a lot of those, so now it’s about, how do we clean it up and control our own destiny? How do we turn that into a playoff run? I think it’s there. We had speed at several different types of racetracks. It was being in the hunt to win races – that’s the evidence right there.
“It didn’t always work out, and some of it was execution, and some of it was we just needed to be a little better because we weren’t good enough. Some better decisions on my part would have brought better results. I’m in no way immune to the lack of results at times. We’re working on all of those things to try to be better. It’s there. The pieces are there. We’ve got a lot of good people and have everything we need. We just have to keep working.”