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Rookie Chris Buescher pulls off unlikely Pocono victory

LONG POND, Pa. — Chris Buescher has spent 2016 living a season to forget.

What was there to remember? That scary flip at Talladega amid several hard wrecks in restrictor-plate events? He spent the first 20 weeks with no top-10 finishes while driving cars that obviously needed work; he had failed to qualify in the top 20 all year.

Through it all, Buescher persevered, in many ways with performances that justified his being under the radar, except when his car went airborne at Talladega.

Funny thing is, what was "under the radar" allowed Buescher to have a day to remember Monday in the Pennsylvania 400 to earn his first career Sprint Cup win.

Buescher, 22, had to wait 80 minutes after NASCAR declared a red flag for fog Monday afternoon at Pocono Raceway. With threats of severe weather and no lifting of the fog, NASCAR decided to end the race with just over 21 laps remaining.

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Buescher was one of two drivers — third-place Regan Smith was the other — who had not yet made a final pit stop when the fog forced NASCAR to throw the caution on Lap 132 and then the red flag just before the drivers came to the line to complete Lap 139.

Everyone else had to pit for fuel or assumed the race would go longer. They could see rain a little further out but couldn't predict the under-the-radar fog.

So a quiet driver ended up in a quiet Victory Lane in a garage since NASCAR couldn't use the real Victory Lane because of the threat of lightning. It was a somewhat appropriate venue for a feel-good story for a driver who seems to savor getting behind the wheel and competing, whether he's running for 20th or for the lead.

"This is going to stir up our whole year. … It's not going to [sink in] for a while," Buescher said of the win, which came in his 27th career Sprint Cup start. "It doesn't even feel real right now. It's so quiet in here. We're not even in the real Victory Lane. We're having to seek shelter. It was a pretty wild event."

The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook had Buescher at 1,000-to-1 to win the race. He is the first rookie to win a Cup race since Joey Logano did it in 2009.

"I hope somebody bet on us and made out really well," Buescher said. "It would be awesome for them. We faced pretty steep odds coming into this one. … You take advantage of every situation that's presented to you, and that's what we did today."

The win could put Buescher in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, as he sits six points behind 30th-place David Ragan in the Sprint Cup standings. A driver has to be in the top 30 to qualify for the Chase via a race victory. Ragan posted the first Front Row Motorsports victory at Talladega Superspeedway in May 2013, and now Buescher has the second.

"We're in the hunt," Buescher said. "We can definitely handle this now. We can get into this Chase now. We'll go do it the same way we've been doing. … We've been heading in the right direction."

While Buescher pulled off the upset, many in the garage will see it as a just victory in the racing world. Buescher is well-respected not only for winning the 2015 Xfinity Series title but also because he took the chance to get Sprint Cup experience knowing he would drive for an underfunded, underdog team that likely would produce few top-10s, let alone victories.

Crew chief Bob Osborne, left, made the call that ultimately put Chris Buescher in Victory Lane. Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

"The key [for young drivers] is to make the most of your opportunities," said second-place finisher Brad Keselowski. "Chris is a master of that. He makes the most out of each and every opportunity.

"That's going to take him a long ways in his career."

Buescher had to take something of a sidestep in his career this year. After winning the Xfinity Series title for Roush Fenway Racing in 2015, Buescher was set to defend that title this year when Roush did a deal with Front Row Motorsports to loan Buescher — and crew chief Bob Osborne — to Front Row for 2016.

Buescher won on a day when two of the youngest stars of the Sprint Cup Series — Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson — battled side by side for the lead and appeared to have the best pit strategy early in the race.

"Congratulations to [Buescher]," said Dillon, who has raced Buescher in the Xfinity Series. "It's a little frustrating for all of us who were up there. It will be a blessing for him. He's a great guy. He deserves anything that he's got coming to him.

"I just wish it was us. Given the situation, it was a heartbreaker."

Larson and Dillon, both in their third year of Sprint Cup racing, are still looking for a first career win. The same is true for rookie Chase Elliott, who has had the best points season of any rookie.

After the race was red-flagged, Elliott went over to Buescher.

"I stopped by and told him I was pulling for him," Elliott said just before the race was ruled official. "It would be really cool. He's a good racer. He's deserving of a good opportunity and I think it would be neat to see him get a win."

Buescher obviously thought it was neat. It was a great victory for him and Osborne, a former crew chief for Carl Edwards.

"He's a good kid and an Xfinity champion," said three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart during the NBCSN telecast. "It doesn't matter how you get your first win, you just want to get your first win."

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