By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
The “Monster Mile” is unforgiving, no matter who much experience a driver has in NASCAR. For sophomore Daniel Suarez, it has treated him exceptionally well, scoring a sixth and eighth-place finish in his two previous trips.
During Sunday’s AAA 400 Drive for Autism at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Delaware, Suarez embodied a solid performance, equaling his career-best finish from Watkins Glen last season of third-place.
It’s Suarez’s first career top-5 on an oval, and second overall in his young career. Not only he accomplished those feats, it’s his third straight top-10 effort in 2018.
“It was good. Very proud of everyone on this team – Scott Graves (crew chief), the rest of the guys, STANLEY, everyone that makes this happen,” said Suarez. “We had a little rough start in the first few weeks – month, month and a half – and now definitely we are moving in the right direction, so I’m just very proud of this team, Joe Gibbs Racing, TRD (Toyota Racing Development) engines, everyone that makes this possible. This is pretty cool to finally get moving in the right direction.”
Suarez began the day in eighth and while his race started off slow, notably falling out of the top-10 in the early laps, his No. 19 Stanley Tools Toyota Camry progressed over time.
As the field completed 60 laps, Suarez reported he wanted to loosen up his car and improve it after crossing the line in 12th.
Seveal drivers were battling fuel mileage late in the stage, but Suarez showed no sign of pitting, putting up fast laps and climbed the leaderboard.
Suarez’s clutch performance moved him all the way up to fourth, scoring an impressive seven stage points.
Consistency was the word in Stage 2 for Suarez, keeping his car inside the top-five right out of the gate. Eventually, he settled around the top-10 and finished sixth, scoring an additional five stage points.
After the stage, his No. 19 Toyota remained competitive and had no issues whereas teammate Kyle Busch did, battling a race-long vibration.
Suarez’s crew got him out in seventh for the start of a grinding 160-lap duel for the finish, with mother nature weighing in on everyone’s minds.
The final stage was a near carbon copy of Stage 1, started off slow including going wide and fell out of the top-10. Despite the blunder, Suarez recovered nicely and caught a break when Busch’s drivetrain broke, ending his day.
Once cleanup was done, Suarez reemerged to keep his top-10 streak alive, but he had to dethrone 11-time Dover winner Jimmie Johnson to do so.
For several laps, the Fall 2016 Xfinity Series winner tried catching the seven-time champion, but wasn’t able to gain 10th place from him.
That all changed when Johnson booted Jamie McMurray out of the way entering Turn 2, as Suarez got by McMurray and cracked the top-10 once again with less than 90 laps remaining.
Moments later, rain plagued the one-mile circuit, forcing NASCAR to bring out the season’s sixth red flag with 80 to go.
During the stoppage, Suarez had to change gloves after running most of the race with a cast. Since his crash at Texas, he’s been healing from a hand injury and since been wearing a cast.
“My hand is fine actually,” Suarez said of his hand injury. “I had my little cast the first 300 laps and then had a little bruise here that it was bothering me a lot and luckily we had the red flag and I had to get out and I changed gloves and stuff and I feel great, so hopefully next week I won’t have to wear that cast anymore.”
Suarez was the highest running Joe Gibbs Racing entry, and once the track was dried, his pit crew went into service.
After an astonishing four-tire stop and costly pit errors by Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, Suarez exited out of pit road in fourth.
The race restarted and Suarez rapidly moved up to third, passing former winner Martin Truex, Jr. Suarez began pulling away from Truex and continued holding his line lap after lap, which turned out to be beneficial.
As Kevin Harvick scored his fourth win of the season, Suarez came home in third for his first top-five this season.
Suarez said track position was as important to the complexity of the race, but gave credit to his pit crew for getting him in the top-five.
“Well, at first the most important thing was definitely track position,” Suarez said. “My pit crew did an amazing job right there in the last stop picking – I don’t know, four, five spots. They did it right when it counts, so very proud of those guys,” Suarez added. “The team actually did great adjustments to help me in the short run when we were struggling a little bit and we were able to keep the third-place, which is good for us. In the beginning of the season, we had some struggles and now finally it seems like we’re going in the right direction.”
Dover proved to be a huge points day, as Suarez improved from 21st to 18th in the series standings, two spots and seven markers away from being inside the playoffs.
“I think it’s about my team coming on strong. I feel like my team has been working very hard,” Suarez added. “Like I said, we had a rough start of the season with the speed just very inconsistent and the last month, month and a half definitely we have found good speed and consistency and definitely we are moving in the right direction.”