Chris Buescher emerged from the fog and foul weather to become a stunning winner in Monday’s shortened Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway.
Buescher, who drives for underfunded Front Row Motorsports and hadn’t finished better than 14th all season, was the beneficiary on a rare Monday race postponed a day by rain.
NASCAR called the red flag with 22 laps left and parked the cars on pit road. Buescher could only sit and wait in the No. 34 Ford, though NASCAR let drivers get out of their cars after about 10 minutes as they waited wait out the gloomy conditions.
“I’m a little scared to get out,” Buescher said.
No need. He was declared the winner after about an 80-minute delay. He was doused with beer and water in a makeshift victory lane celebration inside a garage stall.
Brad Keselowski was second, followed by Regan Smith, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart. Jeff Gordon finished 28th driving for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr.
There are two major requirements to making the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. One is winning a race and the other is being in the top 30 in points. Buescher is still six points behind David Ragan for 30th and will need to find a way to climb higher over the final five races before the Chase field is set.
Buescher won twice last season in the Xfinity Series and won the series championship. His FRM team will spend 2016 as basically the fourth Jack Roush driver because of a shared technical alliance between the organizations. He finished 30th or worse 10 times this season. Ragan had Front Row’s only victory 118 races ago in fall 2013 at Talladega.
The 23-year-old Buescher, a former ARCA champion, rested against a fence and was swarmed by fans and photographers wanting a picture before the race was even called. With veteran crew chief Bob Osborne calling the shots, Buescher and his crew rooted for the rain and fog to stick around.
“I’m trying to remember every rain dance I’ve ever learned,” he said in the car.
Osborne gambled with the decision to keep Buescher on the track while others made pit stops with 28 laps left.
“We’re going to push this as far as we can. Rain is coming,” Osborne said.
Buescher is now on the brink of becoming the first Chase bracket buster. Led by four-time winners Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, there are 11 slots seemingly set for race winners, and Buescher would make 12. Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson are the four winless drivers battling for the final four spots.
Dillon and Larson nearly crashed the party.
With rain looming toward the halfway point, Larson and Dillon engaged in a thrilling five-lap battle for first. Larson kept his tight lead with a timely block of Dillon just two laps shy of the halfway point. Dillon dipped low and briefly snagged the lead, only for Larson to snatch it right back at the halfway point that made the race official.
But Larson and Dillon took their door-to-door battle on the high line, allowing Joey Logano to swoop low and seize the lead in one of the most exciting mid-race moves of the season. Logano, the 2015 Daytona 500 champion, pulled away in the fog – but Elliott got loose and turned Logano into the wall with 55 laps left in the race and sent his 22 to the garage.
Larson and Dillon resumed their race for the lead shortly before the fog came, but both faded and set the stage for Buescher.
“I told him, ‘If I couldn’t win, it was cool to see him win,'” Keselowski said.
Here are other items of note from Monday’s race:
Martin Truex Jr. run up front from the pole was a short one, the former Pocono winner’s race derailed by a flat right front tire. Truex led 16 laps early until the tire blew and forced him to pit road for repairs. He had multiple issues once he returned to the track and finished 38th.
Truex has one win this season and won the June 2015 Pocono race. Truex said his No. 78 Toyota was strong enough to contend for a victory.
“A lug nut spun off, hit the ground, bounced behind the wheel somehow and knocked the inner valve stem off,” he said. “Crazy bad luck and just a shame. The car was so good. I was literally on cruise control and driving away. I don’t know, frustrating, but it’s racing I guess.”
Jeff Gordon’s track record for wins remains at six. Gordon, filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the second straight week, battled a seat belt issue and finished 28th.
“I’m here on a Monday. Where’s Rick?” Gordon joked before the race.
Team owner Rick Hendrick was absent. So was Earnhardt, who missed his third straight race because he suffers from symptoms of a concussion. Hendrick Motorsports has not said who will drive the No. 88 Chevrolet on Sunday at Watkins Glen.
Logano is the defending race winner at Watkins Glen.