Chris Buescher was this close to making a life-changing move at the Daytona 500 a year ago. Then, as is the case for a lot of drivers every year, that opportunity went up in literal smoke.
With just two laps remaining in the season-opening race, Buescher shot up to the top of the track with momentum. He looked poised to shoot a gap between the wall and the No. 11 car of Denny Hamlin, potentially passing the eventual winner on his right side.
But just as Buescher was making his move, there was a wreck behind him and the rest of the leaders. Obviously, that all was overshadowed by an even bigger wreck — one that sent Buescher’s Roush Fenway teammate Ryan Newman to the hospital — and Hamlin eventually took the checkered flag for a second consecutive year.
“It hurts, but that’s part of it,” Buescher said Tuesday at the Daytona 500 media day. “We got to a point where I couldn’t ask to be in a better position, but it wasn’t quite meant to be at that time.”
Buescher ultimately finished third, his second career top-five finish in the 500. Now, with the 2021 opener a week away, Buescher is hoping he can break through in his second season with Roush Fenway, starting at Daytona.
“Ultimately, you go into every speedway race with the same mentality to be there at the end when it matters and put yourself in position. We were both able to do that last year in the 500, and a couple of the other speedway races,” Buescher said Tuesday.
Neither Buescher nor Newman (upon his return) were able to find Victory Lane last season, but they were able to continue Roush Fenway’s relative success at superspeedways. Buescher finished the season with a career-high eight top-10 finishes, three of which came at Daytona or Talladega.
“We’re working hard to get our speedway cars a little bit better yet,” he said. “(Executive VP in charge of competition) Jimmy Fenning and Roush Fenway Racing have had terrific speed on the speedways for a number of years now, so we know we’re going to have good opportunities with our Fastenal Mustang to be there, it’s just a matter of staying clean through most of it, trying to avoid the melees that are sure to happen and always do — and again, just be in position at the end. It’s all you can ask, and that it plays out just a little bit better for us this time.”
There’s reason for optimism, too. The COVID-19 pandemic presented myriad hurdles for every NASCAR team but especially for someone like Buescher, who was in his first season with a new team. He believes some of those challenges might actually benefit him and his team in 2021.
“I think that communication got steadily better through the year,” he added. “We learned how to get through some of the changes, and at the end of the day, it’s actually going to help us moving forward. I think we will have better communication back and forth and quicker communication.”
There will be an increase in practice opportunities in 2021, with NASCAR announcing eight races will feature practice and qualifying. That’s not a lot, and barring a change in the pandemic, there will be similar challenges this season.
But Buescher has proved throughout his career he can put himself in position to win, especially at the bigger tracks. There’s no reason to believe that won’t continue, starting next Sunday.
With a little bit of good fortune, it could be the perfect time for Buescher and the No. 17 team to shine on the sport’s biggest stage.