For rookie Daniel Suárez, top-10 runs are becoming routine
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Daniel Suárez didn’t seem particularly elated about finishing third at Watkins Glen International, even though he had just achieved a career best in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Perhaps that’s because the Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender is growing accustomed to success.
Consider this: Suárez received a battlefield promotion into the Monster Energy Series when Carl Edwards announced his sudden, unexpected exit from the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in the offseason. After a rough start to his rookie season, Suárez has posted four straight top 10s. The third-place finish at Watkins Glen was the first top five of his career.
In Sunday’s I Love New York 355, Suárez also collected his first stage win of the season, blocking Martin Truex Jr. through the final corner and holding off the eventual race winner for the playoff point.
But to Suárez, the success is merely a reflection of steady progress, mirroring his 2016 NASCAR XFINITY Series season, where he started slowly and finished with the championship.
“I think I mentioned in the beginning of the year that I was so looking forward to the second half of the year, as well, because I knew that the second half of the year we were going to be more competitive,” Suárez said.
All the hard work from my team and from everyone in the 19 group and from Joe Gibbs Racing, TRD (Toyota Racing Development), Toyota, it’s paying off. In the beginning of the year, we were not like that. I wasn’t the same driver, either, and now I feel like we are moving in the right direction.
“We have speed pretty much every weekend now where we are running in the top 10. I don’t think it’s a surprise anymore to run in the top 10. We just have to keep it up. We have to keep ourselves calm, and hopefully we can catch a break in the next few weeks, month or so, to try to make it in the playoffs.”
Currently 15th in the standings and 129 points out of the last playoff-eligible position in points, Suárez would have to win one of the next four races to accomplish that goal.
Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch, who swapped sheet metal and post-race barbs at Watkins Glen in 2011 before both drivers finished behind race winner Marcos Ambrose, renewed their rivalry on Lap 45 of Sunday’s I Love New York 355 at the 2.45mile road course.
After winning the first 20-lap stage, Busch came to pit road twice under caution during the stage break, the second time to remedy a loose left front wheel from the first stop.
Restarting near the rear of the field on Lap 25, Busch charged through the field and finished ninth in Stage 2. But shortly after a restart on Lap 45, his No. 18 Toyota collided with Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford in the bus stop chicane, and both cars spun off the track.
Busch recovered to finish seventh. Keselowski rallied to run at the front of the field from Laps 77 through 86 but had to pit for fuel four laps from the end and finished 15th after a pit road penalty on his final stop.
Neither driver was thrilled with the outcome.
“I was going into the corner and I had the 47 (AJ Allmendinger) behind me, and when I got into the corner, the 18 was next to me,” Keselowski said. “My spotter called it, but we were already in the corner. It was too much for me to avoid. We got into each other and that hurt everybody.
“This is a track where you fight for inches, and we both are probably not willing to give in on it. Nobody is happy when you have contact. It didn’t help my day at all either, I can tell you that. I wasn’t looking to get into him and I don’t think he was looking to get into me.
“He probably had the dominant car. He didn’t need any trouble. Neither did I.”
Perhaps it was only fitting that Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race on a road course would come to an abrupt and abbreviated end.
The engine in Earnhardt’s No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet expired after 22 laps of Sunday’s I Love New York 355 at Watkins Glen International, bringing a merciful end to a weekend in which Earnhardt and his team searched in vain for a semblance of speed in the car.
“We had a problem with the valve train, and we can’t fix it,” Earnhardt said after taking the car to the garage. “It’s been a really difficult week. We’ve been way down on speed, and we had a pretty good car at Sonoma (in June), so I was kind of looking forward to coming here.
“But, the guys worked really hard. We changed this car inside and out twice this weekend. And we had made it better, and we were kind of hanging in there. I think we had a shot at maybe a top 20 at best. But man, we showed up and we were about four seconds off.”
Set to retire from Monster Energy Series racing at the end of the season, Earnhardt tried to put the best face on his early exit and last-place finish—but had difficulty doing so.
“It is no more disappointing than any other race that you don’t run good in,” he said. “But we have some more events the rest of the year. We were having a good time out there, trying to enjoy myself even though the car wasn’t as good as we wanted it to be.
“Still trying to enjoy it, knowing it is the last trip. So I’m a little disappointed I can’t be out there competing and making all the laps. That’s all you really want these last several races is to be out there and finishing.”