Of the talented crop of young rookie contenders in 2016, few would have picked the driver among them who would win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race. That driver was Chris Buescher who was leading the rain-delayed Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway Monday when a thick fog rolled in obscuring the track and forcing NASCAR to throw a red flag with just over 20 laps to go.
The 2015 Xfinity Series champion took the lead by staying out during a round of green flag pit stops on lap 127 and reaming there until the caution flag came out on lap 131 when heavy fog rolled over the track forcing the race’s seventh and final caution flag. The field was brought down pit road seven laps later and the race was eventually called.
“Pretty wild day. Pretty eventful weekend,” Buescher said. “A lot of things worked out really well there at the end, and some things that I thought were heading in the wrong direction when I cut a rear tire down just trying to avoid a wreck, and we ended up in a good spot there at the end, and Bob (crew chief Bob Osborne) made a good call to hold out on the weather and make sure that we could run as far out on fuel as we possibly could, and it worked out really well. The weather got here just when we needed it to.”
The win for the small team of Front Row Motorsports was their first in 118 races the last coming with driver David Ragan at Talladega in May of 2013. The first career NASCAR Sprint Cup win for Buescher came in his 26th career start in the 23-year old Texas native’s first full time Cup season.
The storybook ending for Buescher wasn’t the only story of the race.
With weather threatening the already rain-delayed event, the intensity was heightened as the field raced to get to the 80 lap halfway mark. The first half of the race featured the usually players with different fuel strategies. First time Pocono polesitter Martin Truex Jr. led early on until a competition caution called by NASCAR because of rain on lap 16. While the leaders pitted, Greg Biffle and Brad Keselowski stayed out. Biffle led, Keselowski was second on the restart on lap 20 while the bad luck that has plagued Truex and his Furniture Row Racing team struck again. As he entered turn 2, Truex lost a tire and smacked the wall hard.
“A lug nut bounced off the ground, fell in behind the wheel behind a pit stop,” Truex said.”It’s just bad luck honestly. I knew something wasn’t right in (turn) one and two and I got real tight off of (turn) two on that restart and went down the back and was like, ‘Ah, it feels okay.’ And, as I got closer to the tunnel turn I felt it start to go down and by the time I let off and tried to slow down it was just going straight for the fence.”
Truex would stay in the race, but lost another tire on lap 100, hit the wall again, and was forced to retire. Brad Keselowski also used an alternate pit strategy to lead eight laps, as did his teammate Joey Logano who led a race high 38 laps. That pit strategy however came back to haunt Logano. He needed to pit during the second Truex caution on lap 100 while 14 others stayed out ahead of him. Logano restarted 16th when the green came out on lap 104. While working his way back through the field, Logano and rookie Chase Elliott were fighting for position entering turn 2 on lap 105 when Elliott got loose under Logano and swept both up into the outside wall.
“If it had rained a little earlier we would have had a lot different outcome,” Logano said. “There were a lot of positives today. We just ended on a negative note racing hard and trying to get back up there after that caution. We all had to pit because we tried to win the race when it rained and we lost our track position and then the 24 got loose under me. It is just part of racing. It stinks to be on this end of it. It is just part of it.”
Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon then staged an epic battle side by side at times with Larson holding off Dillon by blocking him several times. The two even made contact while beside each other at one point. Larson led a total of 37 laps, Dillon 3.
“I don’t think you ever want to expect contact, but obviously we were racing really hard,” Larson said. “I was doing all I could to stay in front of him and he was doing all he could to get by me. We battled hard down the front stretch one time and then he got back to my inside into Turn 3. I left him plenty of room I was just going to try and run side-by-side with him again and try and slow him down on the front stretch. I guess he got loose underneath me and got into our door. That was pretty frustrating at the time.”
While Larson and Dillon pitted during the final round of green flag pit stops, while Buescher’s veteran crew chief Bob Osborne kept his driver out, a move that turned out to be the winning one.
Buescher’s win is also the first time a rookie contender has won in his first full season since Joey Logano accomplished the feat at New Hampshire in 2009. Keselowski was second, Regan Smith who had also stayed out with Buescher finished third followed by Kevin Harvick who led seven laps fourth, and Tony Stewart fifth in his last Pocono race.
“We needed about three more laps on that cloud,” Keselowski said. “It is what it is, though, so we’ll take a second, I guess, and move on. But this is one of those what could have been races.”
Larson was sixth, Denny Hamlin seventh followed by Carl Edwards, and Kurt and Kyle Busch rounding out the top 10. Jeff Gordon driving in relief of Dale Earnhardt Jr. was hit with a speeding penalty early in the race, then slowed on restart on lap 108 and reported that his safety belt had somehow come loose. He was able to get it secured however, but fell back and finished 27th. The full results can be found here.
Buescher still isn’t eligible for NASCAR’s championship Chase, despite the win. He now needs to be inside the top 30 in points. Buescher leaves Pocono in 31st, six makers behind 30th with five races to go before the Chase cutoff.
“We’ve been seeing a trend in speed through the last six, seven, eight weeks, and we know that we are on the upward climb,” Buescher said. “We have been cutting that points deficit almost every week. All we’ve got to do is just keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’re not going to make any drastic changes unless they’re in the right direction. We’ll keep rolling with it.”
“We’re in a good spot,” he added. “And we can definitely make up those six points, and we’re going to try and get a lot more than that and be ready when the Chase does start to make sure we can advance as it goes through.”
The race also made history marking the first time a race has been delayed at the same track in the same year. The June race at Pocono was also ran on Monday due to rain. The NASCAR Sprint Cup series heads to the road course at Watkins Glen International next Sunday for the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen. Live coverage will be on the USA network starting at 2:00 p.m. with the green flag coming just at 2:30 p.m. ET.