By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Pole sitter Daniel Suarez had a career afternoon during Sunday’s Gander Outdoors 400 at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania, finishing a career-best second behind Kyle Busch after leading 29 of 160 laps.
Suarez’s runner-up effort marked the best finish by a Mexican driver in the premier series, and his second top-five this season.
“It was good. Definitely helps a lot to have this kind of performance from my race team because as you know, we’ve been struggling lately – the last couple months or so – but very proud of my guys,” Suarez on his best Cup finish. “Like I said on the radio today, second place is good, but I didn’t care if we were second, third or fifth, I really wanted to win. We needed that win, but, you know, that’s part of racing. We will get it one day.”
Suarez added that battling with Busch was a valuable experience, but unable to beat his Joe Gibbs Racing temmate was disappointing despite having a competitive car.
“It was good. In the beginning of the race, we were okay and then we lost the balance a little bit and we made some adjustments,” Suarez added. “We got the better and by then, I thought we were a solid top-three car, top-five car. I felt like in the short run, we were actually the best car out there other than the 18 at least and it’s a little disappointing. It hurts to be close.”
Post-qualifying drama Saturday most benefited Suarez after Kevin Harvick and Busch’s times were disallowed for failing inspection, propelling him from third to his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series pole in his 57th start.
His No. 19 Stanley Tools Toyota Camry showcased that his car can hang well out in front as “The Big Three” (Busch, Harvick and Martin Truex, Jr.) weren’t a serious threat in the opening 21 laps of Stage 1.
Strategy was the defining factor all afternoon, as several front runners tried different methods to have an edge on their completion. Suarez, alongside his temmate Denny Hamlin, pitted on Lap 22.
Suarez beat Hamlin out of the pits, but the latter quickly passed him and when the cycle of stops ended, the pole sitter crossed the line in fifth, and scored six stage points.
Stage 2 was a struggle for Suarez, battling with front end issues and searching for grip. However, he regained the lead on Lap 78, and kept his car in front for the next seven laps.
Then Harvick knocked on his door, and took the race lead on the 85th lap. From there, Suarez continued battling a tight car and made his stop on Lap 98. Once the second stage wrapped up, he ended up 26th.
On the final stage, it was the Gibbs show as all four cars ran inside the top-five for a good amount of time with Busch and Suarez being the cars to beat. More so after Harvick and Aric Almirola tangled, putting both deep in the field and out of contention.
In the closing laps, cautions galore gave the Monterrey native multiple chances to get by Busch, but wasn’t able to get by his temmate and crossed the line 1.788 seconds shy of his maiden Cup win.
Suarez felt he had a faster car than Busch on fresh tires, especially when the race came dowdown to the wire, but Busch turned better in the corners.
“Well, I thought I was a little better than Kyle (Busch) and the 18 guys with new tires with five, seven laps or so, but in the longer runs he was better than me. He was just turning better for whatever reason,” said Suarez. “I was getting too tight and I was trying to adjust my tools as much as I can to free the car up a little bit, but it wasn’t helping the rotation – what I needed – and every restart I felt like I was decent, but, no, not great. I felt like if I was able to complete the pass by corner one I was going to be able to hold him off, but I just never had the help from behind”
With five races left until the playoffs, a win is necessary for Suarez, trailing third-place finisher Alex Bowman by 96 points for the 16th and final playoff spot.
Fortunately, he’ll return to Watkins Glen International in New York on August 5, the site of his first stage victory and top-five when he scored a third-place finish last season.