'Missed opportunities' to win continue for McDowell, Buescher despite top-three results at Sonoma

SONOMA, Calif. — In most contexts, a top-three finish on a road course is a stellar result for any Cup Series driver.

Michael McDowell and Chris Buescher respectively ran second and third when the checkered flag waved on a crystal-clear Sunday at Sonoma Raceway.

While the points will pay big for both drivers, it’s another race weekend without a victory to provisionally lock them a spot in the Playoff field with 10 races to go until the 16-driver fight for the Bill France Cup is set.

“We’ve just had too many missed opportunities this year and in the Cup Series, you have to be perfect to win a race and we just weren’t perfect today,” McDowell said.

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To score his best finish of 2024 thus far, McDowell needed to overcome a pair of obstacles to set up the final result. After starting outside the top 10, the 39-year-old had to play for points at the end of the first stage and grabbed five after the first 25 laps. However, the No. 34 was caught up in a multi-car incident on Lap 42 at the start of the ‘esses’ section in Turn 7.

The damage set McDowell back but it caused a strategy shift from eventual race winner Kyle Larson that put him back toward the front. Along with Buescher, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch, the group of drivers were on a fuel-only strategy during the final stage after pitting during the Stage 2 caution.

Larson was able to run them all down with 10 laps to go to cruise out to the lead, but the deferred strategy resulted in a better run than expected, except for Truex, who ran out of gas coming to the finish line and parachuted down to 27th on the results sheet.

“There’s a lot of strategies going on so it’s hard to know from the driver’s seat where you’re at and who is going to be where because there’s just so many different strategies,” McDowell said. “But as it started to cycle out, I knew that we had to run down the leaders and we had fresher tires than some of them, but Larson had the freshest tires of all so it just just didn’t go our way.

“I think if we could have kept our track position there and not had to come back down pit road to fix the damage, we would have had 10 or so more spots forward and that would’ve been 10 less cars that I had to pass to get to the front.”

Entering Sunday’s race with just a 10-point cushion as the 16th driver provisionally into the playoffs, Buescher had an uphill climb starting from 26th.

He was able to keep his No. 17 RFK Racing Ford clean through a slew of cautions for cause in the first half of the race and became a true contender for the win after taking the Stage 2 checkered flag. But as nothing seemed to get in Larson’s way to stall out his push to the lead, the season trend continued for Buescher as he couldn’t hold serve in the closing laps.

Despite another trip to the winner’s circle taken late from the Prosper, Texas native, Buescher found the positive in his final tally.

Chris Buescher climbs from his car
Chris Buescher climbs from his car

“If you had told us at the beginning of the day that we’d be able to win a stage and come home with a third-place finish, I think we would’ve been pretty dang happy with that,” Buescher said. “So trying to remember that side from six hours ago and enjoy it. But yeah, when you’re close, you’re always gonna think about what-ifs.

“Ultimately, if we would have started a lot farther forward, it may have opened up better opportunities for us to have some fresher tires and to fight for it a little better there at the end.”

Leaving Sonoma, Buescher added another 22-point cushion and is now 15th on the provisional playoff grid, 32 points up on Busch.

As for McDowell, a 93-point chasm to the top 16 will likely be too much to overcome if he’s to go winless when the checkered flag waves for the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend but given the pace the Front Row Motorsports stable has shown throughout the season so far, McDowell’s confident he’ll get that sticker on his car before it’s too late.

“We’re close. I believe wholeheartedly we will win a race before the end of this regular season,” McDowell said. “We have the speed and we have the team to do it. We just have to put it all together.”