Brad Keselowski remembers the day Chris Buescher proved his worth as a race car driver. Keselowski, already a NASCAR Cup Series champion, was at a Ford driving school back around 2015, where Buescher was also participating.
At the time, Buescher was in his second full season running in the Xfinity Series for Jack Roush and would go on to win the championship that season. But that day, Buescher didn’t know that he impressed the man who’d one day become his future co-owner.
“I was blown away by his talent and his feel for the car,” Keselowski recalls of that event. “I just felt like he didn’t have the support system around him to be successful with the teams he was with, and so I kind of felt like he was a hidden free agent gem that wasn’t being scouted properly and felt that way for a handful of years.”
Keselowski thought so highly of Buescher that he thought it’d be a natural fit for him to drive the Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 car a few years ago. As time shows that never came to fruition. Buescher moved to the Cup Series with Front Row Motorsports in 2016, also spent a few years with JTG Daugherty Racing, and then came back into the Roush fold by taking over the No. 17 car in 2020.
Then came Keselowski, who signed with Roush to become part-owner and driver for the organization this season. And in doing so, he finally had a chance to do something with Buescher.
“The first thing – it was literally the first thing I did when I signed the papers at RFK – was the next step after signing my papers was putting an offer in front of him to give him a contract extension,” Keselowski said. “I felt like he was somebody we could build around and get results. Today [Saturday] clearly shows that was the case.”
Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway was Buescher’s second win in the Cup Series and first for the newly minted RKF Racing. He led a race-high 169 laps, including the final 61 in which he was chased by series champions Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson, and the equally strong Christopher Bell.
Buescher has been with Roush for a long time. Even when he wasn’t driving a Roush car, he was still under a Roush contract. He calls the organization special and home, and recognizes that there have been plenty of people connected to it who helped give him his shot at professional auto racing.
One of those would be Robbie Reiser, a former Roush crew chief that helped deliver the organization’s first Cup Series championship in 2003 with Matt Kenseth. Or former Roush driver David Ragan and his father, Ken.
“It’s been a really special [place] where I’ve gotten to develop and basically build my skill set and be able to go win a lot of races through different series,” Buescher said. “Not as many on the Cup side as we wanted, not even close, and for Brad to come over in the ownership role and have that faith in me early on meant a lot to me.
“A guy that’s won so many races, a championship at the top level of motorsports in the country that’s a pretty big pat on the back when we haven’t always had the results to show for it.”
Buescher believes it shows that people were paying attention to how he made the most of a situation and that he’s always given 110%.
He finished 21st in his first season driving the No. 17 and was 19th in the standings last year. His career high was 16th place overall in the standings in 2016, the year he was the unlikely victor at Pocono Raceway with Front Row when fog and other weather rolled in and ended the race early.
“I’ve had really good teammates through the years at different organizations, at the Cup level, but nobody that’s put in the amount of effort as Brad Keselowski, and that probably comes from the ownership side of it as well,” Buescher said.
“I don’t know if it would be the same without the side of it, but I feel like the answer is probably yes. He’s very passionate about it. He puts in the work and the time and the effort to be able to make this thing successful, and we’ve seen it this year.
“Everybody back at the shop has done a fantastic job and really adapted well to huge changes through the offseason. The Next Gen car has been a huge step and learning process for everybody, but they embraced it and got after it. And we’ve been close at times, and they always hurt a little bit to miss out on them.
“I don’t remember who told me, but I was told after (finishing second at) Sonoma, you have to lose a few before you can win them, and so I felt like we lost a few this year that got us to where we were ready to win this one.”
It almost felt fitting that Buescher won at Bristol. This is a driver who has been on each end of the highlight reel this season from the good runs, the terrible weekends, being upside down after barrel rolling at Charlotte Motor Speedway and on fire at Indianapolis, only to stay in the car and finish inside the top 10.
Of course he was going to win a race, it was the only thing left to do. And perhaps the humor extends to the fact that the driver who has gone through so much did so at a racetrack that awards gladiator swords as a victory prize.
“At this point, nothing was going to surprise me in this year,” Buescher said. “I don’t know how I’ve gotten to be the test dummy for so much of this. I came back from Indy and my dad said, hey, do you get hazard pay for doing all this? This has been awful; you’ve been all the low lights along the way.
“It’s been a ride. I’ve had a lot harder go this year, torn up a lot more equipment than I’m used to in my career as well. That doesn’t sit well with me because it’s something I’ve taken pride in for a long time.
“I worked on a lot of my own race cars and seen the bills on cars growing up and seen what my family’s sacrificed to do this, and worked very hard to make sure I was taking care of Jack’s stuff through the years.
“This one’s been a tough go. We’ve had some moments, but we’ve had the high spots as well, and that’s really helped keep us rolling. There’s been progress along the way, even with the tough ones. Whether it was rolling at a track where you’d never think about a car flipping, not being the first one on fire, but the one that put on the biggest show out of it until Harvick outdid me.
“Yeah, it’s been a ride but wouldn’t trade it for anything. We’ve learned from each and every moment along the way. Nah, it’s a lie. I’d trade some of those. I probably would. But we did learn from all of it to be able to keep moving forward.”