OPINION: Buescher’s Eligibility a Plus of Playoff Format

©2016, Logan Whitton/NKP
©2016, Logan Whitton/NKP

By Steven Taranto – Follow at @STaranto92

August 1, 2016

On Monday, Sprint Cup Series rookie Chris Buescher claimed his first career victory under the most improbable of circumstances. Buescher was in the race lead during a cycle of green flag pit stops when heavy fog rolled into the Pocono Raceway, forcing a yellow flag that eventually turned to red. The race was called an hour and twenty minutes later, with Buescher being declared the winner 22 laps shy of the finish.

With five races left in the regular season, Buescher’s victory suddenly complicates the Chase picture. Should Buescher move into the Top 30 in points – Which he lies just six markers behind – He would be eligible for the Chase for the Championship, taking away a potential spot from drivers who are currently relying on points to earn a playoff spot such as Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson, Kasey Kahne, Trevor Bayne, and Ryan Blaney. This despite the fact that Buescher has an average finish of 27.8 and only has two other Top 20 finishes (18th at Dover and 14th at Indianapolis).

To some who are critical of the playoff format, the prospect of the Prosper, Texas driver being eligible to race for a championship is absurd. After all, championship contenders were born of consistency at a high level of performance until very recently. Buescher, some may argue, is the very sort of “fluke” winner they warned of when the current Chase format was introduced prior to the 2014 season.

Should Chris Buescher make the Chase, it is doubtful that he would be anything more than a one-and-done performer unless he makes a major step forward in performance. But despite this, there is plenty of good that come out of the prospect of the 2015 Xfinity Series Champion making the Chase alone, let alone him actually pulling it off and being one of the sixteen drivers on the stage in Richmond.

For one, the competitive profile of Front Row Motorsports has increased dramatically. Much like other smaller organizations throughout NASCAR such as RSS Racing and Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series, Front Row Motorsports now goes from another small organization trying to contend for modest results to a potential Chase-caliber team. Years ago, Buescher’s win would have just been a nice story and a short-term boon for a race team of his size. But with the “Win and In” format the Chase provides, Front Row Motorsports can potentially be anointed as championship contenders and reap the benefits of the extra press and publicity a Chase spot provides – Something that may very well attract sponsorship and allow the organization to grow.

Not only does Front Row Motorsports stand to benefit from Chris Buescher being Chase-eligible, but the drivers who he races around do as well. In the past two seasons, drivers coming back from injury to make the Chase such as Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart have been able to easily make their way past the drivers who hovered around 30th in points, making their on-track performance not of relevance to most observers. Buescher, however, likely won’t be able to bury his competition with Top 5s and Top 10s. As a result, where drivers like Landon Cassill, David Ragan, Regan Smith, and Brian Scott are running on the race track, and any fortunes or misfortunes they may encounter, suddenly matters. By this point in the season many years ago, the ranks of the “Also-rans” would be of no relevance to the television networks and press that cover the sport. Now, more of the starting field are of some importance to the overall scheme of the season, and the potential exists for coverage of drivers beyond those who are winning races and contending for Top 10s each week – Something that fans have yearned for for quite some time.

Finally, the narrative of the Chase is poised to take on an additional dimension, as Chris Buescher and Front Row Motorsports making the Chase, fundamentally, would be a nice overall story. Juxtaposed against the elite drivers and organizations of the Sprint Cup Series, Buescher and his team would provide parity of a unique sort: A rookie driver with a fledgling organization simply trying to survive in the highly-competitive world of NASCAR standing on the same level as veteran superstars and the corporate conglomerates that modern championship-contending organizations have become. In a way, Buescher and Front Row’s presence would be a throwback of sorts to previous smaller organizations that contended for championships, such as the one that Alan Kulwicki famously won the 1992 Championship with. It would be proof that with enough perseverance and under the right circumstances, it is still possible to build a championship organization from the ground up in today’s NASCAR.

Chris Buescher is now a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winner, and should he break into the Top 30 in points by Richmond, he will be eligible for this Fall’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. While he and his team would not enter the championship picture by any traditional means, it would be erroneous to declare them undeserving or unworthy of their position. Rather, the sport of NASCAR stands to benefit from a Race to the Chase with Chris Buescher and Front Row Motorsports. As opposed to declaring them to be the manifestation of a supposedly flawed system should they make the Chase, it would be best to embrace their presence. After all, the sport of NASCAR stands to benefit from their being there.