WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Amid a week filled with congratulatory phone calls and promising sponsor conversations, Front Row Motorsports general manager Jerry Freeze also heard some disconcerting rumblings.
Chris Buescher is in position to earn a spot in the playoffs via his Pocono Raceway victory but needs to be in the top 30 in points to be eligible for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
He is six points behind David Ragan for 30th in the standings.
But he is also 35 points behind teammate Landon Cassill, who is ranked 29th.
“We had people say to us, ‘Just start and park Landon a few races, and that’ll take care of it,’ ” Freeze said. “Yes, it could, but it certainly not what we’re in this for, and I think if we do our job, it will take care of itself.”
Front Row isn’t considering any options to put Buescher in the top 30 at the expense of Cassill’s No. 38 Ford.
With Buescher coming off consecutive career bests in Sprint Cup (the Pocono win followed a 14th at Indianapolis Motor Speedway), there’s confidence the rookie will be able to race his No. 34 Fusion into the top 30 over the last five races of the regular season – a point Buescher made several times during a Friday interview.
“We are in good shape to be heading forward,” the 2015 Xfinity Series champion said. “Our cars have been a lot better each and every weekend. The last six or seven or eight weeks, we have been unloading with a lot better speed and finishing better and staying running better in the race.
“I absolutely think we can get into the top-30. We really shouldn’t have been out of it. It has just been some circumstances that have gotten us a little off track.”
Freeze said if Buescher still were in a precarious situation to make the top 30 heading into the final two races at Darlington Raceway and Richmond International Raceway, the team’s most desperate measures would be to get aggressive with pit strategy.
“We have to be mindful of staying out and leading a lap (worth a bonus point) if it makes sense,” Freeze said. “Those are gimmies. Those add up pretty quick.”
But intentionally positioning Cassill’s car, which qualified last Saturday because of a fuel pressure problem, in a way that might help Buescher gain points is off the table. It would be controversial given the implementation of NASCAR’s “100% rule” that requires drivers to race at maximum effort (though allowing dispensation for team strategies).
Freeze said obligations to driver, sponsors and team mostly preclude the practice anyway.
“We’ve got partners on Landon’s car, too,” he said. “We’d hate for them to ever think we aren’t getting our best. We made commitments to Landon and have a team of guys who pour their heart and soul into that car.”
With the circuit headed next to Bristol Motor Speedway, where Cassill led a career-high 20 laps in March, Freeze said the goal is aiming to have another unlikely playoff qualifier, rather than focus on shoring up Buescher’s bid.
“We want to win the race with Landon and do everything we can to have another great car at Bristol,” he said. “We have obligations to everyone who put money into Landon’s program. He’s done a great job, and I don’t want him thinking we would to anything to sacrifice his results to take care of the other car.”
The financial stakes are hefty for qualifying Buescher for the Chase. A playoff sport ensures he can finish no lower than 16th in the standings, which will bring a significant payout from the points fund. There is no bonus money for being outside the top 25 in the standings – which Front Row learned the hard way when it once placed 26th in the standings by a single point.
That’s a tough blow for a team whose budget is much smaller than many organizations in NASCAR’s premier series.
Freeze said Front Row has been encouraged by heightened interest from its existing sponsors since Buescher’s win, exploring opportunities to add races during the playoffs.
“I don’t want to say the phone was ringing off the hook with everyone wanting to sponsor the car, but we definitely have had a good response from folks we’re talking to,” Freeze said. “We have soft-pedaled the competitiveness of our team in the past and accentuated the other attributes and value we bring.
“It’s neat to have charts that show since 2013, that Front Row has won more races (two) than Ganassi and RPM. Obviously it’s timed around our two victories, but it does speak to we’re not Gibbs, Hendrick or a Stewart-Haas organization, but we’re not bottom feeders, either. It validates that we’re a good value proposition.”