Suarez’s Upward Mobility Continues At The Glen

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, August 6 2017

Joe Gibbs Racing driver Daniel Suarez appears to be headed in the right direction. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Ashley R Dickerson)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Thrown into the deep end of the NASCAR Cup Series pool at the beginning of 2017, Daniel Suarez admittedly was content to tread water for half of his rookie season. Based upon his last four races, however, Suarez is performing a lot like Olympic champion Michael Phelps.

Suarez scored a career-best third-place Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series finish in Sunday’s 32nd annual I LOVE NEW YORK 355 at The Glen with a display of drive fast/save fuel savvy worthy of a road-racing ace. The result after 90-laps/220.5 miles around Watkins Glen International’s historic 2.45-mile/11-turn natural-terrain layout was Suarez’s fourth consecutive top-10, highlighted by his first stage victory after 40 laps.

“It feels very good for sure. To be that close is tough,” said Suarez, who trailed race-winner Martin Truex Jr. and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth across the line in a 1-2-3 podium sweep for Toyota. Truex, driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Camry, saved enough fuel to hold off Kenseth and his No. 20 Toyota Care Camry to claim his first WGI victory by a margin of 0.414-seconds.

“I just went as fast as I had to to keep him (Kenseth) behind me and fortunately we were able to keep that gap and never ran out of gas,” said Truex, who punctuated his series-leading fourth win and the 11th of his career with an extended burnout in front of WGI’s third consecutive sellout Cup crowd. “I wish I’d have went a little harder on that last lap so it wasn’t quite so close because I got pretty nervous those last two corners, but it worked out perfect. What can I say? This is definitely an awesome day.”

Truex led a race-high 24 laps, but gave up the lead late in order to save fuel. The strategy paid off as Truex retook the lead with three laps remaining.

Suarez, meanwhile, checked-off another box in his steep Cup learning curve by leading 11 laps.

“It’s a tough feeling, but I’m proud of all of these guys,” said Suarez, referring to crew chief Scott Graves and the members of his No. 19 STANLEY Camry. “I was telling my guys that I’m going to take the fuel tank out myself to see how much fuel we’ve got left and if we have half-a-gallon I want to feel bad to myself because I felt like I should’ve pushed  a little bit more. You never know if those guys were running out and I could win this thing.

“I’m just so proud of these guys. Everyone that put this program together, I’m very happy to be a small part of it.”

The 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, Suarez was preparing to defend that title when Cup star Carl Edwards informed Joe Gibbs Racing of his immediate retirement on Jan. 11, barely a month before the start of the 2017 season. Edwards, 37, said his decision to retire after 13 seasons and a fourth-place point finish in 2016 was a matter of realizing he was satisfied with his Cup career. Edwards recorded 28 wins and 223 top-10s in 445 Cup starts while finishing as championship runnerup in 2008 and 2011.

Team-owner Gibbs promoted Suarez to NASCAR’s premier series and watched the 25-year-old native of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico crash out of the season-opening Daytona 500. That has proven to be an aberration, as Suarez has been running at the finish of the subsequent 21 races.

His sixth-place finish on the 1.058-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway last month was the start of a string of top-10 results that includes a seventh at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, eighth at the 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway and third at The Glen. The latter is not only his first top-five Cup result but also his initial top-three. Suarez’s eight top-10 finishes previously featured a pair of sixth-place runs around Dover International Speedway’s 1-mile concrete oval and NHIS’ bullring.

Those results speak to Suarez’s versatility and growing confidence level. “Man, I really feel like…I don’t remember exactly, but I think I mentioned in the beginning of the year that I was so looking forward to the second half of the year,” said Suarez, the highest-profile graduate of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program. “I knew that the second half of the year we were going to be more competitive, and our second time at all these racetracks we were going to have enough ‘book’ (notes) and we were going to go to those racetracks already knowing what to expect.

“You know, all the hard work from my team and from everyone in the No. 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.”

With four events remaining in the 26-race “regular season,” three berths are up for grabs into the 10-race Cup playoffs. The series visits the 2-mile Michigan International Speedway next weekend.

In addition to his four wins, Truex has recorded nine top-fives and 15 top-10s to lead the driver standings with 881 points. The New Jersey native also leads in playoff points with 34.The driver who ranks No. 1 after the regular season will earn an additional 15 playoff points.

Suarez drove into the record book at Homestead-Miami Speedway last Nov. 19 when he became the first international driver to win a NASCAR championship with a dominant victory in the Ford Ecoboost 300 that concluded the Xfinity Series season. The former NASCAR Mexico Series star led 133 of 200 laps on HMS’ 1.5-mile oval, capping his night by passing fellow-title contender Elliott Sadler for the lead on a restart with three laps remaining.

Suarez, voted the Xfinity Series Rookie of the Year in 2015, won three races last year. “My family has worked so hard since I was 11-years-old to give me the right equipment,” Suarez said that night in an emotional Victory Lane ceremony. “I am so proud of this team for their hard work. I just can’t believe it.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, August 6 2017
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