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Buescher: ‘Still believe we can get into the playoffs one way or another’

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – For Chris Buescher, every lap is a lesson.

Now, in his fourth full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, the JTG Daugherty Racing driver continues to make gains, incremental they may be, week in and week out. He doesn’t take any lap, any race, any practice or debrief session for granted, knowing that to be successful at the sport’s highest level racing for a mid-tier team, he needs to fight for every inch just to stay afloat, let alone get ahead.

Keeping that rookie-like, eyes-and-ears-wide-open mindset is going to be key to his trajectory, along with the consistency and growth he’s building at JTG. Even if there might be a gray hair or two creeping in.

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“Yeah, I’m feeling old,” the 26-year-old told on Friday at Kansas Speedway, site of Saturday’s Digital Ally 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). “It’s a good thing, to be here that long and to have that feeling. Definitely don’t feel like a veteran; I learn every time we go out on the race track. There’s always something coming to you. … It’s been nice to be around and to have the continuity that I have with JTG Daugherty Racing. Really, the first time in my career where nothing has changed for me on the NASCAR side for a couple of years. We’ve been able to keep our core group together and stay with the same team.

“It’s really something that’s been a lot of fun and I’ve really enjoyed it. We’ve been able to build on something. I think that’s what’s got the beginning of this year firing off better for us. Not exactly where we want to be, but much better than where we’ve been.”

The consistency and long-term outlook Buescher and JTG invested in each other are starting to pay dividends. Buescher came out strong in the second race of the season, notching his first top 10 since Daytona last July and first at a track shorter than 2 miles since finishing sixth at Kansas … in 2017.

That doesn’t happen by accident.

It speaks to the long hours and straight grind the team put in over the offseason to adjust to the 2019 rules package – one that Buescher claims plays right into his team’s wheelhouse – and if it weren’t for a pair of unfortunate crashes at unpredictable Daytona and Talladega, he’d potentially be on the brink of playoff contention. Removing those two results, his 18.6 average finish in the other nine races would put him on pace for a career-high by nearly three full positions.

RELATED: Buescher’s season stats | Season standings 

“Our mile-and-a-half stuff’s been much better this season. We’re not at the point where we can go win these things every weekend, but we’re sneaking up on it,” said Buescher “Like I said, lots to learn. Every time you go on track, you learn something.

“ … I think for us, we think that top 15s should be a weekly occurrence. That puts us out-running, really, a handful of top-notch, big-team cars without setting an unrealistic expectation to go win every race. We’d love to, but that’s where we figure we should be able to run. … Everyone through the offseason did a great job of finding more speed in these cars and not just speed, but drivability. …

“You’re not going to find a half second overnight, and we don’t really need a half a second. We’ve definitely closed the gap. I think when you look at this past offseason, our organization as a whole probably made the biggest jump in average finishing and running spots through the changes that were made. We can go race, so that’s been awesome. We just have to keep ahead of it and that’s hard to do in this industry. Man, it changes every weekend. It’s frustrating sometimes. Stuff goes in circles. You find something, you’ll try it. Then it’ll go away for eight, 12 weeks and all of a sudden it’ll come back around and you’ve got to try and regroup and get it back in the race car. That’s tough to do.”

The question now is if these gains will result in a potential berth to the NASCAR Playoffs in 2019 – or if Buescher and JTG have a 10-race homework assignment waiting for them come September.

Buescher admits a path to the postseason on points will be a stretch given his results at the superspeedways, so attention instead turns to the road courses where his former teammate, AJ Allmendinger, buttered his bread.

“It’ll be tough either way we go. We still believe we can get into the playoffs one way or another. It’s going to be hard. … We look at road courses. One thing immediately, coming over (to JTG), obviously AJ is a great road racer and before him, Marcos Ambrose was a good road racer and they really dialed in the package with the team that works really well for those races.

“I remember, I had been to Sonoma once before and then I came to this organization and we went there a second time and I went from running about 30 something to qualifying ninth. I didn’t learn this overnight, but we have race cars that work, mechanically, really well. We look at those as a high spot for us, a good opportunity. I’m no road course ace, but I really do enjoy them and they’re something we have a lot of fun at. Puts us in a pretty good spot when we go out to Sonoma and Watkins Glen.”

Playoffs or not, it’s clear that JTG is building a slow-burning fire that has longterm potential to catch ablaze, and it has its kindling in place with Buescher and rookie teammate Ryan Preece. The goal isn’t to win the title this season; it’s to lay the foundation for championships to come.

“We’re working on building this organization up,” Buescher said. “It’s not a small team, it’s not a super team. We’re somewhere in the middle and we do really well with the resources that we have. It’s a solid program, it’s just growing. It grows every week. Offseasons are hard to keep up, for one. It’s even harder to make leaps and bounds and get ahead and that’s what we were able to do this offseason, so that’s awesome. It’s really exciting when we look at these next few years going forward.”