For rookie Daniel Suárez, top-10 runs are be­com­ing rou­tine

Cecil Whig - - NATIONAL SPORTS - By REID SPENCER NASCAR Wire Ser­vice

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.”

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