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May 11, 2024

Chris Buescher finds solace, RFK optimism after stinging photo-finish defeat

DARLINGTON, S.C. — Last weekend’s finish at Kansas Speedway was sure to come up. When it did, six days later, Chris Buescher still had the voice of a driver on the short end of an eyelash-thin margin of victory that will go down in the NASCAR Cup Series history books.

“Yeah, I’ve watched it,” Buescher said with a sheepish downturn in his tone Saturday morning at Darlington Raceway. “I’ve replayed it in my head no less than 100 times and that’s probably pretty conservative.”

All the re-airings — in all the post-race highlight reels and in Buescher’s personal viewing — have Kyle Larson’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet eking out the slimmest of wins by 0.001 seconds in front of Buescher’s No. 17 RFK Racing Ford. It’s the replays in his head where Buescher has made notes, should a similar late-race scenario resurface.

“I’ve got a list of things I would do different going back and I just need to be in that situation again,” Buescher said. “I’m taking a lot of good things out of it, a couple bad, but ultimately what I look at is that is the most competitive mile-and-a-half that we’ve had, ever in my career with RFK for sure as well. That was a better weekend than we had at Michigan (last year) when we won. I take that as the highlight of how it all went down and it kind of gets you through some of the bitterness of it as well.”

Buescher and the rest of the Cup Series field return for another intermediate-sized track at tough, historic Darlington, site of Sunday’s Goodyear 400 (3 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Top of mind is the razor-thin outcome of last weekend’s Kansas round, with Larson landing his 25th Cup victory and Buescher just shy of his first — and Ford’s first — win of the year.

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Larson offered his own replaying of the final-lap showdown before Saturday’s qualifying, saying that Buescher’s choice of racing line for the final set of corners had come as a surprise.

“I was planning to go to the outside no matter what,” Larson said, freshly back in the US after a midweek sojourn to France for a Taylor Swift concert. “I honestly thought that he would just run low and fast; kind of run the shorter distance. So, when he kind of ran the middle, I was like — oh yeah, like wow … here we go! But it wasn’t until l got exited off of the corner, like to the straightaway, that I thought we still had a shot here. Like when I had initially got there, I thought he was going to throttle up and kind of like — not move me up, just like I wasn’t quite there enough, I thought.

“It’s weird. Like when you watch a replay, it looks different than what you see in the helmet. I remember when I kind of throttled up to try to get to his quarter, I thought he was going to be able to throttle up, get clear in front of me and then I would get aero-tight. But then when I stayed there, I still was like – all right, now I’m crashing because I’m just in an awkward spot here with aero and the way that Turn 4 kind of sharpens up on exit. I just thought I was going to run out of space, not even like him doing anything dirty or anything like that. He left me enough room and all that. Yeah, we got off the corner and then it was just about how the run was going to work out, and thankfully it barely worked out.”

Race finish from Kansas with Chris Buescher and Kyle Larson.
Alejandro Alvarez | NASCAR Digital Media

As he noted in his retelling of the finish, Buescher was able to salvage some consolation from the conclusion of Kansas with RFK’s gains in performance. Both he and team co-owner/driver Brad Keselowski have two runner-up finishes each this season. “I guess that is a really good useless stat for everybody in here. No one’s going to talk about that one except us,” Buescher told reporters. “But it is a measure for us to say we’re inching up on it, or we’re right there knocking on the door. It’s just about sealing the deal at this point.”

Keselowski shared the sentiment, with some bullish optimism that his organization would be the one to snap Ford out of its 0-for-12 drought to start the season. The two RFK Dark Horse Mustangs showed proper pace in Saturday’s qualifying sessions, with Keselowski joining pole-starter Tyler Reddick’s Toyota on the front row in second place and Buescher lining up third for Sunday’s 400-miler – with the All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the weeks that follow.

“I feel really good about this stretch here,” Keselowski said. “We’ve learned some things about our cars that are finally getting applied. The next month is really exciting for me. We got some really good tracks for us, and the cars are more drivable, shown better speed. I’m really encouraged, and hopeful that we’ll be able to win one of these next few races.”

Darlington has been the site of one of NASCAR’s shortest margins of victory and one of its largest. Ricky Craven famously nipped Kurt Busch by 0.002 seconds at the line here in a memorable 2003 finish, and Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett claimed the 1965 Southern 500 at the 1.366-mile track by a whopping 14 laps over runner-up Buck Baker. The law of averages would slot this Sunday’s result somewhere in between those two extremes.

MORE: Oral history of Craven’s win vs. Busch in 2003

Last weekend’s outcome marked the latest in a recent run of close finishes in NASCAR’s national tour — Daniel Suárez’s Cup Series triumph in a three-abreast stunner at Atlanta in February, and Sam Mayer’s squeaker in the Xfinity event at Texas in April. Suárez’s perspective on the Larson-Buescher duel as a fellow photo-finish winner was telling.

“Well, we were three-wide. They were only two cars,” Suárez said with deadpan delivery. “So we’re better — by one.”

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Having achieved the desired chuckle from the reporters crowded around him, Suárez volunteered a broader view.

“But no, the reality is that the way I see it is the big picture, the racing that NASCAR is delivering today. That’s the way I see it,” Suárez said. “We have had three extremely close finishes between the Cup Series and the Xfinity Series in the last what, two months? That’s pretty remarkable, and hats off to everyone at NASCAR, on everyone that’s building these cars — teams, drivers — to be able to create this kind of racing because if the fans are not entertained, I don’t know why we do it, because it’s pretty amazing. Hopefully we can keep it up and do it more often.”