Chris Buescher, driver of the No. 17 Fastenal Ford Mustang Dark Horse for Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing, is coming off a runner-up finish last weekend at Phoenix Raceway. As he prepares for Sunday’s annual Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, where he has one career NASCAR Cup Series victory, he spoke about returning to the concrete surface for the spring race after three seasons on dirt.

CHRIS BUESCHER, No. 17 Fastenal Ford Mustang Dark Horse – WHAT IS IT ABOUT BRISTOL THAT SUITS YOUR DRIVING STYLE? “Bristol has been my favorite race track for a really long period of time. I’ve absolutely loved it there from the first I was able to go. I’ve always run really well there. I just had it quick pretty early on and even though I’ve got that sword at home right now and got a Bristol win, won a Bristol Night Race, which has been the one race on the top of my list that I care for just a little bit more than anywhere else. But I still go back to 2015 and having a fuel stumble on a green-white-checker finish and giving one away, so I still have those memories of the ones that did slip through, but from that one I think it’s just motivated me ever since to try and get that Bristol win. It’s just a fun track, honestly. I’ve loved where the surface has gone. I’d love to see the bottom and top have equal opportunities to make speed and make passes. I think that the top is probably a little bit more dominant in its most natural state, but some of the stuff that they’ve done with the PJ1 or I guess resin this weekend seems to have helped the bottom have that little bit of grip when needed to make some passes, so, to me, it’s the most fun track we go to. I feel like it gives us options. It may not be very wide to start, but it always finds its way to move around and be able to make some two or three-wide moves throughout the race and put on a good show. I’ve just really enjoyed that.”

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE FORD MUSTANG DARK HORSE? “I’m probably the worse one to ask right now when you look at our results on the year. The one thing I will say is that we’ve had a lot of speed every single place we’ve gone. We’ve been able to lead laps at the first three races. We’ve been able to be runner-up last week, which was huge for us. Our long run speed was fantastic, so I certainly feel like we are headed in the right direction. We’ve got some stuff to dial in still. I think, for us, last weekend we were able to finish very strong with both of our race cars and get back here and still feel like we have a ton of work to do to balance out this new Mustang and figure out how to optimize it. I feel like we left a lot on the table and that’s a good thing when you run as good as you do to say that there was a lot more out there. That puts us in a good spot heading back.”

WHAT IS THE ONE THING YOUR PROGRAM NEEDS TO REACH THAT NEXT LEVEL? “Our second half of last season was very strong – very, very good. Obviously, we were able to win a handful of races there, but we were very good most everywhere we went. Homestead snuck in there on us, but we took that and really said that if we can fire off this season where we left off, then we’ll basically be able to have the talks that we’re having right now – that we have had a chance to win races everywhere we’ve been. We’re not the dominant car at this point, but we’re certainly sneaking up on it and feel like we have the ability to get there. The big focus for us was to make sure that our first eight races were competitive. Last season, I felt like that’s where we missed it. It’s where I felt like we got behind and it took us way too far in the season to find what that was, so I guess to answer your question, I don’t know that I have the one thing that gets us there, that takes us over that edge, but we’re certainly way closer to start this season than we were last go around. I think that puts us in a position to where we are looking for one small step up versus at this time last year trying to figure out how we’re gonna climb that flight of stairs. That’s exactly what we were trying to do, so I don’t have the answer beyond right now, but I’m surely proud of what we’ve been able to do through the offseason.”

HOW OFTEN DO YOU SEE JACK AND HOW IS HE DOING? “Jack is doing good. He’s not coming to as many races now, but he’s still down here at the shop during the week. He’s still in all of our meetings that we do both post and pre-race for weekend prior and heading up, so we’ll be talking with him in a little over an hour when we sign up to start talking about Bristol. He’s still very active and involved in knowing what’s going to the racetrack, what we think and what our plans are, and the reminders from his experiences through the years. Usually, we get a little tidbit or a little story about where we’re heading into and something that has stuck in his mind through the years. I guess the big thing is don’t lift at the white flag at Bristol. I’m sure that will come up. Don’t tell him I said anything, but he’s doing great and it’s still good to see him around the shop and really focused in on all of our meetings. I promise you, as soon as I mess something up on the weekend I won’t even be out of the firesuit yet and I’ve got a missed call from Jack, so he’s staying in the loop.”

IS THERE ANY EXTRA PRESSURE RACING IN YOUR HOME STATE? COTA IS A WAYS FROM PROSPER, TEXAS. “Always, a little bit. COTA is farther away than Bristol, Darlington, Richmond, and Charlotte all are from us right now from where I grew up in Texas. It is still a home track and so, yes, there’s always a little more. The last handful of years that my parents were in Texas they were outside of Austin a little ways, so that was a place where they actually made a lot of friends in the area, so a lot of them will come out to the racetrack. Road course racing has been strong for us. We don’t have a win on one yet and that’s a little discouraging because we have been very close at times. We’re certainly trying to figure out how to make that a bigger possibility when we get to COTA. It seems to be the one road course that hasn’t been our strongest. We’ve got to figure out why that is. For whatever reason, Texas was the same way. We could figure out a lot of mile-and-a-halves and couldn’t quite get the home track down, so I don’t know if that’s a normal stat for drivers or not, but something that has certainly ached me a little bit from home tracks. But we’re ready to go down there and turn that around, get through that conversation and start talking about winning in front of that home crowd. That would be a big moment.”

YOU ARE THE MOST RECENT WINNER AT RICHMOND. HOW WILL THIS NEW PACKAGE REACT AT THAT TRACK? “I would say my thought process says that Richmond the package would show up as a bigger change versus others simply from the surface being more worn out and having more fall off there. I feel like we’re able to drive this car a little bit freer with this aero package to where you can get a little bit more feel in it. I don’t know that it changes our racing product a whole lot. We were still able to pass a lot of cars in Phoenix. We were able to pass a ton of cars last year, so I don’t know exactly how to break that down yet, but with the surface and the fall off that we will get at Richmond, it seems like that has the potential to have a bigger impact there. With that, I do think that it is still going to carry over a lot of what we had at Phoenix, a lot of that will come in at Richmond as well. I think there is a lot of similarity. I don’t know that you’re gonna see a huge shakeup from what you saw at Phoenix, but it’s gonna be a bit of an unknown. We haven’t run it enough to put any kind of a bow on this package or to understand where we’re at yet.”

DO YOU FEEL THE THINGS YOU NEED TO WORK ON AS A TEAM ARE ACHIEVABLE? “Yeah, we’re certainly probably working in more detail work. We’ve been on treasure hunts looking for golden horseshoes and rabbit’s feet and all that stuff would certainly go a long way for some of them, but the speed has been there, which is so hard to find. You can work on cleaning up decisions on restarts. You can work on timing on pit road. You can certainly work on fine-tuning and developing setups that are already proven to be competitive. It’s when you don’t have those baselines to even know where you need to search, when you’re really just guessing week to week a 20-minute practice with the limited adjustments we have, your race has been decided before you ever unload off the truck – not fully, but ultimately your potential has been decided at that point. You can get it better and you can work a couple spots here and there, but there’s just not the knobs to turn to get that fixed if you miss it from the get-go. Fortunately, we’re not having those conversations right now. We’re able to work within those smaller areas that we are allowed to during practice to get ourselves better and set ourselves up better for a race. Phoenix, having a longer practice, did enable us to work around this package a little bit. I know COTA will have that extended practice as well, which is good for the same reasons. That’s a big difference for us to not be searching right now. Last year, the west coast swing always stands out. It’s hard because I don’t feel like you can catch up if you miss the first one because then it used to be three weeks that you couldn’t find your way, I didn’t feel like. You really needed that time back in Charlotte to dive into it and be able to figure out what it was, not just be trying to get a car ready to ship out and sent across the country. Again, those two races for us we had a lot of potential at Vegas and obviously had our issues. Our team has worked really hard and has come up with better game plans to avoid that going forward. The pit crew is very, very competitive and has a ton of potential, so I know we’re gonna be in a good spot going forward, and we have been. They’ve done a fantastic job, so we’ll work through being human at times, but certainly when you’re looking for the things that we are, it just feels more feasible.”

HOW CLOSE ARE THE 6 AND 17 NOW IN TERMS OF PERFORMANCE? “In ways, yes. I will say that I’m sitting here talking about the beginning of our season and being very happy when we’ve had three crashes out of four races, but I’m happy because I know the potential there and what the we’re capable of. What I would say to add to that and to answer your question is if you look at last year, strictly the races that we won and even the Bristol race that we won, the 6 was leading at the time when they blew their tire. Richmond, we were battling the 6 for the lead there at the end and it came down to a good, clean execution on pit road to get track position and we were able to get clean air and run away. We were fighting each other for that win essentially. Michigan, at the end of that race I did not have the fast laps of that race. The 6 was coming very competitively there at the end on a little different strategy and kind of covering our ground to if we had a different outcome or different scenario there like another caution, certainly I was gonna have to think about racing the 6 car there, and then Daytona one-two. Like I said, strictly looking at those four because they’re the most glaringly obvious to me, we both have been very competitive. You’ve got to have the results for everybody else to say the same thing, but certainly as we’ve gotten this year fired off we’ve both been in similar scenarios to where we’re both very competitive at the racetrack, that we both feel like we have potential to win races a lot earlier in the season than we were last year. I don’t know as far as setups, driving styles if that’s really gotten any closer as much as we’ve really just honed in on what works for each of us.”

HOW DIFFERENT WAS WHAT YOU HAD TO DO TO GET THAT TOP FIVE FINISH IN THE FALL VERSUS WHAT YOU HAD TO DO TO GET THE TOP FIVE ON SUNDAY? “We dove into it a little bit. I would say we had more potential in our car overall last year. Towards the tail end of the year we had a little better understanding of the package. I would say we unloaded closer. We raced a little closer. We went to the test and a new aero package was being thrown at us the whole time, tires. It was a lot. We left the test not really happy with our performance there and then as we got back we were able to understand the package. We got it more optimized and figured out and went back to Phoenix and with the exception of just being overall tighter for us personally, there was very little change from the feel of last fall. I would say if you want to say the middle would have been the fall race last year, that we went to the test we were three numbers this way and we came back for the race and we’re only one number the other way. We were much closer to the end of last year than we were at the test. I think that just goes with being able to really work on what we were officially running. We had so much thrown at us over those two days that it’s hard to really understand it and know what that’s gonna look like, especially once you get more than seven cars out on the track, too. For me, I think our long run speed still showed up in a really big way. Our short run speed was probably a little bit more off this time. I’m gonna relate that to us simply just being too tight and needing to discover a little bit more on what we need to re-balance to be able to get that fire off speed, but we were still able to get late into a run, move around the racetrack a little bit and pass cars. We were able to do that quicker, so if our long run speed came from 25 or 30 laps on the go-around, then last time it was 15 laps. Those aren’t exact numbers, but I’m just trying to put it into perspective. We were better a little bit earlier last go-round. I’m not gonna sit here and say I feel like there was a really big change with the package this race. I think we did a lot of the same things and had a lot of the same issues of dirty air at times, and you’re not gonna get away from that conversation, period. There’s always gonna be dirty air to some extent. We’re just trying to figure out how do we open up options for us to be able to do something about it when you’re not directly in line.”

WHEN YOU CAME TO PIT IN THE FINAL STAGE LAST WEEK WAS IT A GAMBLE OR DESPERATE MOVE? “A little bit situational in our race. Like you said, we finished the previous stage 10th and got going. One car hit the fence really hard in front of us on that restart and we lost a ton of spots being trapped behind him. That put us right on that break point of do we go ahead and pit now knowing that we’re a little short? Really, that was trying to watch the mirror as much as anything to hit pit road and try to understand if we were gonna be the last car on old tires staying out or if we were gonna make the decision to be one of the first on new tires. Obviously, the decision worked out really well as the race played out. That put us in a great spot and got our track position, which really helped. The fire off speed wasn’t great still, but we were able to manage it a little bit. We lost probably four or five spots getting going early and was able to just steadily pick them all back off with the exception of one. He actually started way behind us and still came through there, so it was definitely the right call for us. It definitely helped us play to our strengths. Our strengths were never gonna be strong enough to outrun the 20 on that day, I don’t believe, but like we’ve talked about a little at this point the potential of the race car there’s a lot more left in it and when we get some of those things right and can manage our fire off, then we’ll be good for the extent of the entire race, the entire run and won’t have to try and hedge against some of those tougher decisions like that where it could go either way.”

HOW DO YOU LOOK AT THINGS AFTER FOUR RACES WITH ONLY TWO STAGE POINTS? “I hadn’t looked at it and that made me feel better about it until you just said that. The way I see it, we’re not points racing this year. We’ve got to win races and we’re capable of winning races and when we go do that, the rest will fall in line. I don’t think we’re a team that’s gonna sit here and say we’re gonna have to battle for this bubble spot of 15th, 16th, 17th for points to try to break into the playoffs. That’s not gonna be our season and with that being the case, I’m not worried about the stage points and what we’ve been able to do there. I don’t like that it shows we haven’t been where we need to be, but, like we’ve talked, the speed has been there at times – not the right times all the time – and in three of the four races we’ve lost race cars. We may have finished Atlanta decent. Daytona we limped it back around, but we’ve got a full dumpster around here of race car parts and that ultimately shows why we don’t have any more points to show for it. We’ve got to clean up and find a little bit of luck here or there. We’ve got to make better decisions at certain times and just be smarter in ways and work harder, clean up. It’s gonna be tricky, but I’m not gonna read much into it right now. Like I said, we’re definitely not gonna start having points talks this early in the season. That’s not my speed at all.”

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