By Dustin Albino

Chris Buescher and the No. 17 Roush Fenway Keselowski team are for real. Like for real, for real.

Buescher continued his recent surge being among the darkhorses for the Cup Series championship battle in the playoff opener on Sunday evening at Darlington Raceway. Both RFK teams cracked the final round of qualifying on Saturday, setting both teams up for success in the Southern 500.

During the opening stage, Buescher dropped a spot to ninth in the rundown, scoring two stage points. The No. 17 team missed out entirely on stage points during the second stage, placing 13th. But as other playoff drivers made mistakes or had trouble in the pits, Buescher chugged along.

Amidst the final stage, Buescher continued to move up the scoring pylon. Denny Hamlin, who led a race-high 177 laps, thought to have a loose wheel and pitted. Kevin Harvick was in prime position to take the lead, but the No. 4 team serviced its car when pit road was closed after Ryan Newman spun on lap 311 to bring out the caution. For the restart, Buescher elected to take the inside of the front row, underneath Kyle Larson.

Another caution flew on lap 320, allowing Buescher to get another crack at the inside of the front row. He did so again following the final caution of the race on lap 332, but cycled out third behind Larson and Tyler Reddick.

“We tried to start on the front row, what, three times next to Larson,” Buescher said after the race. “So we had our chance and got close when Brad [Keselowski] pushed us one of those restarts, and just the outside had the momentum for sure, and they were really good.”

Buescher closed the gap on Reddick in the waning laps, and barely held off a hard-charging William Byron to finish third. It marked the No. 17 team’s seventh top-five finish of the season, which is more than Buescher’s previous three seasons with RFK Racing.

“We were all running the same groove trying to make speed and obviously playing other games there, too, and Byron was faster at the end and had to defend that a little bit,” Buescher added. … “But also hurts just a little bit to be that close.”

Four of Buescher’s seven top fives this season have come in the last six races. That stretch is better than any of his previous seven full-time Cup seasons alone, as his previous single-season best for top fives was three in 2022. Three of those four top fives were wins.

The third-place finish is Buescher’s best result at Darlington in 13 starts. His previous best finish was ninth in 2021.

“We know what we’re doing,” Buescher said. “We’ve been doing it and it’s been working and it’s been resulting in wins.”

With two races remaining in the Round of 16, Buescher remains fourth on the playoff grid. He increased his buffer over the elimination line to 27 points.

“It’s not that we need to change up what we’re after,” Buescher stated. “It’s just status quo right now. The things we’re doing are getting us opportunities to win races, and we’re capitalizing on the best days and capitalizing on great days like here tonight.”

As the Cup Series heads to Kansas Speedway, Buescher has a trio of top 10s in 15 races at the 1.5-mile oval. In May, he placed 17th.

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