Chris Buescher, William Byron will enter Cup Series playoffs as title favorites

AP photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack / RFK Racing's Chris Buescher slaps hands with spectators during driver introductions before Saturday's NASCAR Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway. Buescher won three of the final five races in the regular season, including Saturday's finale.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Chris Buescher and William Byron have this in common: Neither wants to declare himself the favorite heading into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

Both have a strong case in the 16-driver field, though.

Buescher won three of the last five races in the regular season, including the finale Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway. Byron, meanwhile, leads the series with five victories in 2023 and is tied for the playoff points lead with Martin Truex Jr. as the 10-race postseason begins next Sunday with the Southern 500 at South Carolina's Darlington Raceway.

Buescher and Byron have diverse resumés and definitive momentum.

"I think we're a contender," Buescher said Saturday night, when he and driver/co-owner Brad Keselowski led RFK Racing to its first 1-2 finish in more than nine years. "We still have work to do. I don't think we're under the illusion that it has to go through us and us only right now. We've got tracks we still need to be better at. We've got work to do as a group and as a team to get in the hunt.

"I surely feel confident about our ability to drive through the playoffs and feel like we can certainly be a contender in this thing."

Still, he stopped short of calling the No. 17 Ford team anything more, even after winning for the third time in the span of a month.

"I feel like I'm not able to get up here and quite say that, yeah, this is ours, it's in the bag," he said. "There's been definitely several teams that have been very stout this season."

No one has been better than Byron and the Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 Chevrolet team. Byron won three of the first 13 races this season and added a fourth victory in early July. A six-week summer swoon followed, but he made it back to victory lane with a dominant performance at Watkins Glen International in the penultimate race of the regular season, the first road course win of his Cup Series career.

"It's just part of the ebbs and flows of the season," Byron said. "You want to be on kill for 38 (weeks), but it's really hard to just be good every single week. I think it naturally was kind of a little bit of a reset for us as we try to get ready for the playoffs."

The 25-year-old Byron is in the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year, coming off a career-best sixth-place finish in the Cup Series standings in 2022, but his five wins this season are more than he managed in the previous five years combined.

"I think we've always known William had the talent. It was just about getting the experience as a young driver racing at this level, getting him with somebody that believes in him and is providing the car, and now the pit crew is crushing it," said four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, who is now vice chairman at Hendrick. "They just seem like a complete team.

"I don't want to jinx it, because it's a long season and it's all about you've got to keep that momentum going all the way through the playoffs."

The 30-year-old Buescher is returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2016. He finished last among the 16 contenders that season while driving for Front Row Motorsports, which maintained an alliance with Roush Fenway Racing (that organization became RFK last year, when Keselowski joined). Buescher eked out a postseason spot by winning a fog-shortened race at Pocono Raceway.

That one was surprising. His return to the playoffs is far from fluky, considering he has won at a superspeedway and at a short track.

"We're building something that's going to be special for a long time," Keselowski said Saturday. "That's a big goal of mine. I'm proud of everybody in the team, certainly Chris for his efforts.

"The bigger picture is to have a sustainable race team that can win championships for years to come, be a perennial championship contender. Today was good progress for that."

Winning again in the playoffs could take Buescher and RFK to another level. Of course, the stakes -- and pressure -- mount weekly, and there's no shortage of competition.

Denny Hamlin, the circuit's most accomplished driver without a championship, finished second to Truex in the battle for the regular-season title. The playoff field includes not only Truex as a former Cup Series champion, but Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson and Joey Logano, as well as a number of drivers with one win and multiple top-five finishes this year. Bubba Wallace grabbed the 16th and final playoff berth on points thanks to Buescher's win at Daytona, which also eliminated fan favorite Chase Elliott.

This much is certain: The postseason will be unpredictable, even if there appears to be two clear favorites for now.

"I really don't think there's one team to beat or anything like that," said 23XI Racing's Tyler Reddick, another playoff qualifier. "Some teams have just taken advantage of their situations a little bit better and not made mistakes. It can be anybody, I think."

  photo  AP file photo by John Raoux / Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron leads the NASCAR Cup Series with five wins this season heading into the 10-race playoffs that start next Sunday in the Southern 500 at South Carolina's Darlington Raceway.

Update on Preece

Stewart-Haas Racing driver Ryan Preece is "awake, alert and mobile" after his car rolled about a dozen times during a terrifying crash in Saturday's Cup Series race at Daytona.

SHR officials reported Sunday morning that Preece "has been communicating with family and friends" after being hospitalized overnight.

Preece and SHR teammate Chase Briscoe made contact coming out of the fourth turn at Daytona, and Preece's car went into an uncontrollable barrel roll as soon as it slid from the asphalt to the infield grass. The car came to a halt on all four tires, with some minor damage to the roll cage.

The 32-year-old Preece was able to climb out of his mangled No. 41 Ford with help before emergency workers put him on a gurney and into an ambulance. He initially went to the track's infield care center before being taken to Halifax Health Medical Center for continued observation.

Preece was already sharing his thoughts on social media some two hours after the race with a post that read: "If you want to be a race car driver, you better be tough. ... I'm coming back."