12 Questions with Chris Buescher

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues with Chris Buescher, who is currently 26th in the standings for JTG Daugherty Racing. Despite missing the playoffs after making it in 2016, Buescher’s average finish has improved by five positions over last year.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I’d to think that it’s been 50-50. I feel like I’ve been able to hang tough. Early on, I kind of had some idea I could do this, and from then on it’s just been working at it to to fine-tune it through the years.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

That’s all the guys that I grew up watching before I was even racing, before I was racing hardly anything. So for me, I feel like I can relate to a lot of the drivers from a lot longer ago. I feel like I’m a pretty normal person. I’ve worked on race cars all my life. I’ve been able to be a big part (of the team), being in the shop and working through the last handful of years to understand what goes into them. So I feel like I’m a bit more hands-on, I’d say.

That actually reminds me: When they announced that you had re-signed with JTG, they said you’re in the shop more than any other driver they’ve worked with. Why do you go in the shop so much?

Because I have friends there. (Laughs) I like going in and just seeing what’s going on. I don’t really get my hands dirty anymore; I think everyone’s scared that I don’t know what I’m doing, and I probably don’t at this level. This is the best of the best that work on our race cars every week and that are on the track every week.

So it’s a way for me to go in and hang out in a much less stressful environment. Race weekends are very much down to business and get things done, and you can goof off and have a good time, but everybody’s stress levels are a lot higher. I feel like when you’re at the shop, you get a little more personality out of everybody and can hang out, go to lunch, talk about something other than racing sometimes. I think everyone likes to take a break every now and then with the length of the season and how often we are traveling. So for me, it’s just a good way to go catch up.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

A lot of that, for me, is trying to dress up. I don’t get too fancy most of the time, so a lot of our functions we go to, a lot of events, I have to really focus on that.

JTG Daugherty has a thing with golf around here that everybody likes to go have meetings and hang out with sponsors and discuss business on the golf course, and I’ve played two games in my life — both this year as a matter of fact — and I’m horrible. So I’d say that’s got to be the hardest part of my non-driving part of this thing, is trying to figure out how to play golf at this point.

That’s gonna be a work in progress. Golf takes a long time to learn, so that’s pretty frustrating.

Yeah. AJ (Allmendinger) is very good, Ernie (Cope) is very good, Trent (Owens) is very good — and I’m not. We were at the shop hitting a couple the other day and I actually hit the building on my first shot. So, not good.

4. Let’s say a fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

I’ve had that a couple of times. It’s actually kind of fun because I feel like I’m still under the radar enough to where no one’s ever sure of themselves. It’s always like, “Well, maybe…”

They’re like, “Is that Chris Buescher…?”

We get a lot of that, and that’s actually kind of fun. I like to mess around with people for a little bit and then yeah, we’ll sign stuff. It depends on how nice of a restaurant, I guess.

So wait — do you try to tell them at first that you’re not Chris Buescher and see the look on their faces or something?

I’ll usually tell them I work in racing or I’m a mechanic or something and then kind of ease into it and see if they catch on or see if they believe it. I like to play games for a little bit.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

Something that I think a lot of fans don’t realize is how much time and effort our teams put in. (Richmond) being a Saturday night race is actually very nice for teams, especially the crew members. They get back from a Sunday night race and they’re back at work mid-morning Monday and roll right up until that plane takes off. It’s a very long season, and it’s a commitment by everybody in the garage area that’s very time-consuming. It’s very difficult to live any kind of normal life in this business, and I think everybody deserves a lot more credit than what they get on the amount of dedication they have to this sport to make it what it is today.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Probably AJ. And before that it was probably (Matt) DiBenedetto, I would say. That might have been social media though. He wanted to go four-wheeling with us next time.

He felt left out?

Yeah, we had a little fun in West Virginia last off-weekend, and I guess I forgot to invite him. I didn’t know he wanted to go.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Certain ones. (Laughs)

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

My policy is trying to keep it down to three times a year or less. I used up one (at Darlington), and I think I had one earlier this season as well. White gloves are bad for that policy. I try to do it discreetly.

What did the person do last week (at Darlington) to deserve that?

I kind of just got run over. We all but wrecked. It was Turn 1 all the way to the exit of Turn 2 sideways, and it was bad. I felt it was very deserving.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

I don’t think it’s a case-by-case deal. I think you get to know who you race around a lot of times. I think you just kind of build up a resume, so to speak, with other drivers. So when you’re around certain ones, you kind of know what you have from a good side. And I’d say on the bad side of things, I think more or less, more times than not it’s unexpected, and so that’s why you feel like you deserve retaliation. And then there’s those where you fully expect it going into it and you know that’s how you get raced.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

I just happened to run into Miss Brazil at a steakhouse like eight or nine years ago. That was kind of neat. That was in Vegas.

How did you know it was Miss Brazil?

She was wearing her sash. She wasn’t trying to hide it by any means.

She was in the restaurant with the Miss Brazil thing right on there?

Yeah, so we got to sit down and talk to her and the people she was with for a while. That was kind of neat. At the time, I was nobody, so that was pretty cool.

Did you just go up and say, “Hey Miss Brazil, mind if I sit down?”

I don’t remember exactly how it happened. I don’t think that’s how it went; I’m not that slick. But between the people I was with and the people that she was with and had there, I think something about racing came up and then we got to talking.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

A lot of things. (Laughs) Just a lot of things come back on the track, trying to go faster in these things, trying to understand these cars, trying to understand the bump stops, the splitters on these things. It’s all very different from everything I grew up racing, and I think that’s been the hardest thing for me to adapt to. I feel like the cars feel more like a go-kart now than a stock car in a lot of ways, and that was not my upbringing. So it’s been a challenge for me.

12. The last interview I did was with Aric Almirola.  His question was: Why did you agree to do this interview?

Why the heck I agreed to do this interview? Because Kelly (Boyd, his public relations rep) told me I was going to do this interview.

It’s that simple, huh?

Yeah, pretty much. It’s always fun to do something that’s a little bit outside of just the racing questions that you get every week, and I think you’ve hit on something here that makes it a little more enjoyable than the normal one.

You’re making me blush. Anyway, I’m going to the IndyCar championship next week, so I’m probably going to do the next 12 Questions with an IndyCar driver. Do you have a question I can ask one of them?

What made them crazy enough to strap into one of those things? And that’s not insulting in any way — they’re braver than I, I will give them that.

Those dudes, I watch them and go, “What are they doing?”

(Laughs) It looks awesome and I bet it is so much fun to drive, but I could never convince myself to do it. No way.

This interview was brought to you by Dover International Speedway. The cutoff race for the first playoff round takes place at Dover on Oct. 1. Here’s a link to buy tickets (and make sure to come say hi at the tweetup).

The Top Five: Breaking down the Michigan race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway…

1. Oh, that restart

Kyle Larson’s brilliance behind the wheel of a race car — it doesn’t matter what kind — is the sort of raw ability that every race fan can appreciate. And that was on display for all to see on Sunday.

Larson’s fourth-to-first move on the overtime restart — first slicing his way up the middle, then getting right to the bottom before anyone had time to really counter — was perhaps the best moment of his NASCAR career so far.

Today’s NASCAR is so much about the car and less about the driver, but Larson has shown several times how much the driver still matters. He is willing to try things others do not or cannot, and it provides for quite a show whether the attempt succeeds or fails.

This time, it worked — and Larson completed a week where he forced those who scoffed at his “last true racer” comment several months ago to wonder if maybe he was right.

2. Truex vs. Kyle

In the majority of races this season, the fastest cars have been either Truex or Kyle.

It’s just that the “Kyle” role has switched between Larson and Busch.

Larson was leading the points until he dropped off a cliff recently and tumbled to third with five finishes outside the top 20 in a seven-race stretch. It looked like he lost all his momentum as the Toyotas took over, but questions remained whether that was a product of losing his crew chief to a suspension.

That meant Michigan was going to be a huge test: Would Larson run well on a 2-mile track (a layout which has now generated all four of his career victories)? If not, that would seem to confirm his summer slump.

Apparently, things are just fine. Even though Larson didn’t have a dominant day, he was there at the end and figured out a way to win.

We’re back on the bandwagon now. Pencil him back in for the Final Four at Homestead, along with Truex, Busch and Jimmie Johnson.

3. Kenseth’s nightmare scenario

Matt Kenseth was in a lose-lose situation on the final restart that ended up with the lesser of two evils.

Going into overtime, Kenseth lined up third — on the inside of the second row — behind Erik Jones. His best shot would have been to push Jones on the restart and hope he could make it three-wide, but that could have resulted in a Jones victory.

And that was not going to be good for Kenseth. A new winner from below Kenseth’s spot in the points could have knocked him out of the playoffs (he’s currently holding on to the last spot). Plus, it would have meant helping Jones, the driver who is replacing Kenseth, get his first career win. That probably wouldn’t feel great.

I am not sure what happened and didn’t see any quotes from Kenseth after the race. But on the restart, Kenseth appeared to lay back and try to get a push from Chase Elliott (either that, or he spun his tires).

Ultimately, Kenseth ended up with a flat tire in the ensuing mess and finished 24th. He’s now 31 points ahead of Clint Bowyer for the final spot (see standings below) with three races to go.

The overtime finish cost Kenseth roughly 20 points, which is pretty painful in the battle for a playoff spot. But actually, that wasn’t the worst-case scenario. Because if Jones had won, Kenseth might not have had any points race to worry about at all.

4. Did you notice?

Chris Buescher is having a much better season this year than 2016, when he made the playoffs thanks to his rain-shortened Pocono win.

Buescher finished sixth at Michigan — his best finish of the year — and was right in the mix for a top five on the overtime restart. That was really impressive for a car that doesn’t typically contend there.

Overall, Buescher has improved his average finish from 26.1 to 20.7, already has as many lead-lap finishes as all of last year (11) and picked up his third top-10 of the season.

He’s not going to make the playoffs this season, but he’s trending in the right direction regardless.

5.  Uncertain futures

Bubba Wallace’s victory in the Truck Series race on Saturday was both a feel-good story and a frustrating reminder of the state of NASCAR.

Wallace has been sitting at home for a month, got into a truck for a one-off deal — and won. That’s great on the surface, because everyone watching probably went, “Yes! This will help his chances of getting a ride — and he deserves it.”

But will he get one? Despite being both talented and marketable, there’s no good news yet.

It’s the all-too-familiar problem of today’s NASCAR: Unless a driver personally has money — whether through family or a loyal sponsor — he can only hope the exact right opportunity at the exact right time magically comes his way.

I got another reminder of this on Sunday while watching the race with Gracin Raz (we recorded the post-race podcast, which you can find here). Raz finished fourth in K&N West Series points as an 18-year-old and then was fifth last year. Now 20, Raz has been forced to cut to a part-time schedule running a Late Model he and his dad work on in their garage.

We were chatting during the race and I was asking what the next steps are. The answers aren’t clear, but the solution is: Money. There’s not really much — if anything — Raz can do to jump in a car and prove himself, because that’s not what matters. It’s what money he can bring somewhere to get an opportunity.

Here’s a talented young driver who was just starting his career (and won a K&N West race in 2015), but there’s no pathway forward. The ladder to the top has broken rungs. The same can be said for Wallace, who waits in the same situation — just at a higher level.

It’s a sobering reminder: How many young drivers are there out there, scattered across the country, who could excel if they got the right opportunity?

Sadly, only a lucky few will ever find out — and that’s not healthy for a sport that should be built on the best talents.

———–

PLAYOFF PICTURE

By patron request, I’m going to start including the playoff picture at the bottom of the Top Five each week. Here’s how it looks now:

IN (13): Truex, Larson, Harvick, Ky. Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin, Johnson, Blaney, Ku. Busch, Newman, Stenhouse, Kahne, A. Dillon.

Points Bubble with four races to go:

14. Chase Elliott +62

15. Jamie McMurray +52

16. Matt Kenseth +31

—-

17. Clint Bowyer -31

18. Joey Logano -98

(Everyone else more than 100 points or one win behind)

The Top Five: Breaking down the Martinsville race

Each week, I’ll provide some quick postrace analysis with five thoughts from the race. This week: Martinsville Speedway.

Brad isn’t so bad

Martinsville is one of the tracks where Brad Keselowski gets booed the most in pre-race introductions. The reasons why people don’t like Keselowski — he’s brash and runs his mouth at times, races some popular drivers too hard and is unapologetic and unflinching when it comes to on-track incidents — all come to the forefront here.

So it was interesting after the race when Keselowski decided to dash into the stands to greet a group of fans — some his, but not all — who had stuck around to watch victory lane on the frontstretch.

Why?

“This might not be the track where I get the loudest cheers,” he said with a laugh. “But that’s OK — that’s part of what makes this sport go around.

“I just felt really good about it and saw a couple people I knew up in the grandstands. … I just thought it was worth saying hey.”

You may not want to hear this, but that’s more of who the real Keselowski is than what you see on the racetrack.

Keselowski is the type of guy who uses reporters’ first names in news conferences when answering questions. Not because he’s trying to kiss media butts, but because he’s respectful and personable.

He is fan-friendly (did you see his Facebook Live videos in the first couple weeks of this season, when he surprised people in the campgrounds?), intelligent and a good ambassador for NASCAR, his sponsor and his team.

And yet, so many fans hate his guts! It’s honestly a shame for NASCAR as a whole, because Keselowski has the type of personality that could make him a really popular driver. The problem for fans is since he’s opinionated and never backs down from a fight, they’ve already determined he’s a villain.

There’s probably nothing that can be done to reverse that for now — maybe people will come around later in his career — but fans who don’t think there are interesting drivers with personality in the series are overlooking Keselowski.

Stages Right

Stage racing continues to produce unexpected results. For example: Who would have imagined it would prompt a lapped car to bump the race leader out of the way?

That’s exactly what Ricky Stenhouse Jr. did at the end of Stage 2, sending Kyle Busch up the track and costing Busch a potentially valuable bonus point for the playoffs this fall.

Stenhouse said he wouldn’t normally make such a move because “You respect the leader.” But knowing a caution was about to come, he said, made him go for it.

“It’s as hard as I could drive,” Stenhouse said. “I’ve got sponsors, fans and a team to take care of. I had to stay on the lead lap. That was a turning point in the race. If (Busch) laps (Austin Dillon, who was the next car in line) and we’re stuck a lap down, it could ruin our race. So I drove as hard as I could, and it paid off for us.”

Stenhouse ended up with a 10th-place finish — his second top-10 in three weeks. He said he planned to nudge Busch just enough to get the lap back, but “didn’t mean to give up the win for him in that stage.”

Busch wasn’t impressed by the move. He said Stenhouse should expect payback, particularly since — in his mind — the bump wasn’t necessary. The defending race winner explained he intended to give Stenhouse a lane and allow the driver to get his lap back at the line; instead, Stenhouse “just drove through me,” Busch said.

“I was trying to be a nice guy,” Busch said. “But nice guys don’t finish first.”

Crew chiefs getting tire-d

Why in the world did Jamie McMurray stay out when it seemed obvious his severe tire rub was going to result in a flat — one that ended up wrecking his car?

Well, because the team — like many others that have gotten burned in similar ways before — thought the tire rub might go away.

Another part of the reason not to pit, McMurray said, was “If we pit and we lose three laps, you are never going to make those up here.”

The problem is, that’s not really true. Drivers have come back from incidents that put them multiple laps down at Martinsville, because there are so many cautions that wavearounds and even free passes are likely here.

This honestly isn’t to pick on crew chief Matt McCall or McMurray’s team, because this seems to happen every few weeks: A driver gets damage from another car or from brushing the wall, resulting in a tire rub; then, either because the team thinks it will go away or because it’s praying for a longshot caution, the driver stays out and ends up wrecked when the tire blows.

But these teams are really out-thinking themselves if that’s the case. Points for finishing 25th and laps down are still way better than last-place points after a wreck.

If it’s a minor tire rub like Kyle Busch had? Yes, that can go away. But when there’s THAT much smoke? I’m not an expert, but PIT, damn it! The tire isn’t going to heal itself.

Cash me ousside

Holy crap, did you see that outside lane working at Martinsville? They’ve been racing here for 70 YEARS, and the outside lane has never been a viable option (as far as I know) until Sunday. The new tire Goodyear brought laid rubber in the top lane, and Busch seemed to pioneer a new strategy of making the outside work.

Team radios were abuzz with spotters and crew chiefs telling their drivers about Busch’s line, and others seemed to try the same thing with some degree of success. Keselowski even made the outside lane work on a late restart.

Of course, it’s not like drivers have never made passes on the outside (Tony Stewart passed Jimmie Johnson that way for a win in 2011) — but it’s just never been the preferred way around.

And it wasn’t necessarily better than the bottom on Sunday, but at least it became an option. There was only one time all day where I noticed a driver hit the brakes to try and get the low line on a restart after pit stops, so that was an improvement.

It’s worth wondering whether setups can be geared to run that way in the fall, when the playoff race will have much more importance.

JTG FTW

Hey, how about JTG-Daugherty Racing?

Sixth-place AJ Allmendinger had his best finish on a non-plate oval track since, well, this race last year (he finished second that day).

And second-year driver Chris Buescher, in his first season at JTG, finished 11th — his best result since a fifth-place run last fall at Bristol.

“We needed a good run,” Allmendinger said. “I actually felt like a race car driver today. That was a lot of fun.”

Maybe all is not lost for Allmendinger, who had a miserable start to the season after a 35-point penalty and three-race suspension for crew chief Randall Burnett, who returned Sunday. He moved up four spots to 26th in points (Buescher is 27th) and there are still two road courses ahead for Allmendinger.