Chris Buescher capped Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing’s dominant day at Richmond (Va.) Raceway with a trophy, holding off the field on a restart with three laps remaining to win the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out 400 Sunday afternoon – his and the RFK team’s first victory of the season.
Buescher and his teammate Brad Keselowski (also a co-owner of RFK) combined to lead a race-best 190-of-400 laps – Buescher’s 88 laps out front was the most laps he’s ever led in a race in his eight-year NASCAR Cup Series career. And it all results in an important automatic bid into the 16-driver Playoff field with only four races remaining in the regular season.
Buescher’s No. 17 RFK Ford ultimately held off last week’s race winner, Denny Hamlin by a slight .549-seconds although Buescher had held more than a five-second advantage on Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota up until that caution flag flew for an accident involving Noah Gragson and Daniel Suarez in the closing laps.
“It was smooth sailing trying to take care of this Fastenal Mustang, it was so good and trying to take care of it there and about the time (crew chief) Scott (Graves) said over the radio ‘It’s working perfect, keep it up,’ and then there’s a caution,’’ said Buescher with a smile.
“But we were so strong during the race, I had a good feeling there about it,’’ added Buescher who now has three career NASCAR Cup Series wins. “So awesome to pull it off. I’m proud of everybody. That was a long way from the back.’’
That late-race yellow flag was the only caution flag on the day other than the two stage breaks. And the afternoon racing at the Richmond three-quarter mile track was physically demanding under intense heat – over 130-degrees inside the race car. As seventh-place finisher Martin Truex Jr. said smiling after the race, “my cheek feels like it’s sunburned, it was like a hair dryer blowing on you.’’
The 30-year old Texas native Buescher, however, handled the heat and the field, starting 26th but steadily working his way forward. He first cracked into the Top-5 by lap 160 of the 400-lap race, chasing down then-leaders Bubba Wallace, Tyler Reddick, Keselowski and Hamlin.
For a race with so many green flag laps, it was actually issues on pit road that thwarted several winning efforts, not problems racing on the track.
Wallace’s 80 laps out front mid-race in the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota marked the most laps led in a single race in his career. But he ultimately had to play catch-up when his team had a slow tire change on green flag pit stop on Lap 175. He finished 12th.
With 56 laps remaining, race polesitter and Wallace’s 23XI teammate Tyler Reddick got flagged for violating the commitment line coming to pit road for green flag stop, relegating him from running among the Top-3 to desperately trying to remain on the lead lap with the laps counting down. He finished 16th after leading 81 laps early – every lap of Stage 1 en route to claiming his fourth stage win.
Similarly, Keselowski suffered a misstep in the pits after his No. 6 RFK Ford led a race-best 102 laps. He made an awkward turn into his pit during a green flag stop with 115 laps remaining and it cost just enough time to allow his teammate Buescher to take the lead with under 100 laps remaining.
“We wanted to finish one-two, that’s the ultimate goal, but we still had a heckuva day,’’ said Keselowski, who finished sixth and won Stage Two - his third stage win of the season.
Richard Childress Racing’s Kyle Busch – the all-time active winner at Richmond – finished third; his best showing on a short track this season. Team Penske’s Joey Logano rallied in the late laps to finish fourth and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Ryan Preece turned in his best showing of the season with a fifth place run.
Keselowski and Truex finished sixth and seventh followed by SHR’s Aric Almirola, Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon and SHR’s Kevin Harvick. Chase Briscoe finished 11th giving SHR one of its best full team efforts of the season – all four cars inside the Top-11.
Every car in the 36-car field finished the race, the first time the full field was running at the end since 2018.
Buescher is now the 12th driver to win a race in 2023, leaving four positions still available for a new winner or the top drivers in points. Harvick and Keselowski hold more than a 100-point advantage on the 16th place cutoff. Wallace is up 54 points and Front Row Motorsports driver Michael McDowell holds an 18-point buffer on Joe Gibbs Racing rookie Ty Gibbs for that 16th place position. Kaulig Racing’s A.J. Allmendinger is 22 points behind McDowell.
Four races now remain to settle the 2023 Playoff field. The series moves north next week for Sunday’s Firekeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, USA Network, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Harvick is the defending race winner.