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Recent winners Chris Buescher and William Byron open NASCAR playoffs as unwitting favorites

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — 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, though.

Buescher won three of the last five regular-season races, including the finale Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway. Byron, meanwhile, has a series-leading five victories and is tied for the points lead with Martin Truex Jr. as the postseason begins at Darlington Raceway next Sunday.

Buescher and Byron have diverse resumes and definitive momentum.

“I think we’re a contender,” Buescher said after leading 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.”

But he stopped short of calling the No. 17 Ford 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’s No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. Byron won three of the first 13 races this season and added a fourth in early July. A six-week summer swoon followed, but he made it back to victory lane with a dominant performance at Watkins Glen in the penultimate race of the regular season.

“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 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 NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon, 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 with Front Row Motorsports, which maintained an alliance with Roush Fenway Racing. 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’s won at a superspeedway and at a short track.

“We’re building something that’s going to be special for a long time,” said teammate and co-team owner Brad Keselowski. “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 and former series champions Truex, Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are in the playoffs. So are a number of drivers with one win and multiple top-five finishes. Bubba Wallace grabbed the 16th and final playoff berth on points thanks to Buescher’s win at Daytona that 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,” playoff participant Tyler Reddick said. “Some teams have just taken advantage of their situations a little bit better and not made mistakes. It can be anybody, I think.”

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