Darlington Raceway is NASCAR's oldest speedway and the Southern 500 (6:00 p.m. ET, NBC) is the kind of race a driver would love to have on their résumé.
But while winning the Southern 500 would be a significant accomplishment, it is not at the forefront of what Chris Buescher is hoping to accomplish this weekend. The 23-year-old rookie has other pressing goals, as he needs to maintain his position inside the top 30 in points and therefore remain eligible to earn a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth when the field is set following next week's regular season finale at Richmond International Raceway.
Buescher became eligible for NASCAR's playoffs with a surprising weather-assisted victory Aug. 1 at Pocono Raceway. To qualify for the Chase, though, he also needed to finish the 26-race regular season 30th or better in the standings, and at the time of his win he was still below the cut line.
The Front Row Motorsports driver climbed above the mandated requirement with a fifth-place run Aug. 21 at Bristol Motor Speedway, but conceded some ground when engine problems had him finishing 35th last week at Michigan International Speedway. Holding a seven-point lead over 31st ranked David Ragan, Buescher must not stumble either Sunday night or at Richmond.
Thus, Buescher will contest the Southern 500 smartly. If he feels he can push ahead, he'll do so, while risky maneuvers are to be avoided -- if that's at all possible on one of NASCAR's most challenging tracks. And if he needs a reminder of what's at stake, his team will provide Buescher continual reminders.
"If it's a matter of kind of winging it and hoping that you can get a position, and sticking your nose in somewhere where it shouldn't be? We're gonna think twice about that one," Buescher said Friday. "I'm not saying that we're on defense right now, we are still aggressively racing for every point we can get, but we're not gonna take any unnecessary risk right now."
With Hurricane Hermine causing NASCAR to cancel all on-track practice on Friday, officials scrubbed qualifying originally slated for Saturday so drivers could instead practice. Which means the starting lineup is set off owner points, and Buescher won't have trouble keeping an eye on where Ragan is running in the early stages -- Buescher will lineup 31st and Ragan 32nd in the 40-car field.
Factoring that Buescher's never raced a Sprint Cup car at Darlington, it could make for a long 500-mile race. But needing to just finish ahead of Ragan helps alleviate the pressure some, and if Buescher can do that he should be in solid position entering Richmond.
"Being there at the end of the race is gonna be huge," Buescher said. "... It's definitely a place where we can go and gain points and capitalize on what we missed at Michigan."
SOUTHERN 500 LINEUP
|8||Martin Truex, Jr.||Toyota|
|22||Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.||Ford|