NASCAR makes obvious decision after Gateway

Zane Smith, RFK Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Zane Smith, RFK Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) /

Chris Buescher has been granted a playoff waiver after missing Sunday afternoon’s NASCAR Cup Series race at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.

Last week, RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher became the first NASCAR Cup Series driver to miss a race this year as a result of COVID-19-related protocols.

Zane Smith, who competes full-time for Front Row Motorsports in the Truck Series, filled in for Buescher behind the wheel of the #17 Ford and made his Cup Series debut in Sunday afternoon’s Enjoy Illinois 300, the inaugural Cup Series race at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.

Smith finished this 245-lap race around the four-turn, 1.25-mile (2.012-kilometer) Madison, Illinois oval in an impressive 17th place after starting in 32nd.

The 22-year-old Huntington Beach, California native had finished in ninth place in the Truck Series race there the day prior and finds himself leading the Truck Series playoff picture with a series-high three wins in the season’s first 11 races.

But Buescher is set to return to the #17 Toyota for this Sunday afternoon’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.

And NASCAR has made the unsurprising decision to grant him a playoff waiver.

This means that if Buescher is to qualify for the playoffs, either by winning one of the remaining 11 regular season races or by locking in on points, his missed start at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway would not prevent him from occupying one of the 16 playoff spots.

If he doesn’t qualify anyway, the waiver is effectively meaningless.

The decision to grant a playoff waiver to a driver who had been forced to miss time due to COVID-19-related protocols is not an uncommon one. The same decision was made in 2020 for Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon after they each missed a race, and it was made again in 2021 after Corey LaJoie missed one.

Johnson and LaJoie didn’t end up qualifying. Dillon got in thanks to a win from earlier in the season.

Prior to this past weekend, Buescher had not missed a race since becoming a full-time Cup Series driver in 2016. His missed start ended a streak of 230 consecutive starts.

The 29-year-old Prosper, Texas native currently sits in 24th place in the point standings, and the cut line already sits up between the 12th and 13th place drivers, as four drivers from below it have won at least one of the season’s first 15 races.

He sits 104 points behind driver in 12th place, Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick, so it is highly unlikely that he will get into the playoffs on points. He will likely have to win a race to qualify for the postseason.

Of course, winning a race doesn’t necessarily mean a ticket to the playoffs, since there can be more than 16 regular season winners; there have already been 11.

But if Buescher does win and put himself into the playoff picture, the waiver granted to him by NASCAR would ensure that he doesn’t lose his spot simply because he missed a race.

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Buescher has not been to the Cup Series playoffs since his rookie season in 2016, when he qualified by winning a rain-shortened race at Pocono Raceway for Front Row Motorsports.