By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Two drivers misfortunes became one man’s tremendous gain. That man was Daniel Suarez, who finished fifth in Sunday’s Consumers Energy 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
After facing near disaster during Saturday’s final practice when a tire went down, Suarez’s quiet race day led to his third top-five this season and the first since the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ last visit at Michigan in June, where he scored a fourth.
More importantly, Suarez cut down his deficit from 23 down to six markers with just three regular season races remaining.
“It was a decent day for us. We had ups and downs,” said Suarez. “There was something wrong, a bad set of tires or something in that second stage. We couldn’t control it. The team was able to overcome that with good adjustments and they put me back in the game with track position and we were able to get a good result from there.”
It wasn’t just due to his No. 41 Arris Ford Mustang having enough fuel to gain valuable positions, it was also a result from two drivers who were inside the top-16 having issues throughout the afternoon.
The first victim was Jimmie Johnson, who held the final spot via tiebreaker over 17th place points man Ryan Newman. The seven-time champ’s day collapsed in the opening laps of the 200-lap contest when going into the PJ1 traction compound bit him dearly and slapped the Turn 2 wall.
A cut right rear tire forced Johnson to bring his No. 48 Ally Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 into the pits to make repairs and remove a tire carcass from the car. He would exit out four laps down, but another tire rub led to another stop and sealed his fate as he ended up 35th, eight laps behind race winner Kevin Harvick.
Johnson felt disappointed to have his issue, feeling he had a great car to compete for a strong result but will simply move forward as the long winless streak has extended to 82 races.
“The right side tires went into the PJ1 and as soon as I got my tires in it, I went straight into the wall,” said Johnson. “When you’re aggressive, it doesn’t work and then sometimes you’re cautious and it doesn’t work. It was a great car. That hurt, for sure. We’re just going to have to rally on and these guys are doing an amazing job. We’ll keep digging.”
Suarez’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer, who entered Michigan 15th in points and 14 ahead of Johnson and Newman, failed to finish the race after contact in Turn 3 wounded the No. 14 One Cure Ford Mustang.
On the Lap 137 restart, Bowyer got some help from Paul Menard, shook him sideways and went up across the track. The movement nearly collected Alex Bowman but just missed the June 2018 Michigan winner, who’s back end slapped the barriers.
Bowyer would coast his car back to pit road before going to the garage, finishing 37th as he and 38th place finisher Spencer Boyd were the only retirees.
“Somebody got in the back of me. When I went around I just saw Bowman and thought it was him. I guess maybe the 21 or somebody. As soon as it happened, I was just along for the ride. I don’t know,” Bowyer on his viewpoint of the accident. “We have to get something figured out with these race tracks. We are really fast by ourselves, practice and qualifying really well, in the top-five almost every single time but then we start the race and don’t make the grip we need to compete.”
Other than Suarez, 12th place finisher Ryan Newman gained tremendous ground and knocked Johnson out of the 16-man grid as he’ll head into the Bristol Night Race 15th in points, 16 markers ahead of Suarez.
Johnson dropped two spots and sits 18th in points while Bowyer now holds the 16th and final playoff spot by just eight points.
Bowyer said the entire No. 14 camp definitely need to find some things out, not just to maintain a spot in the playoffs, but be a legitimate threat for the championship as he’s yet to win this season.
“You can talk about the bubble and worrying about points but I am way more worried about getting established and running up front at these types of race tracks,” said Bowyer. “If you make the playoffs and can’t compete in it then what is the use? We have some things to work out. We have some time. We have some good race tracks for us including Bristol coming up. We have plenty of racing but we have to get some things figured out.”
As for Johnson, he’s aware of Bowyer’s troubles and Suarez’s big points day, even referring to Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron’s consistency in the summer stretch that sees him sit 12th in points, 89 points ahead of the cutoff line.
“To just fight hard for every point. The guys around that cutoff point, all seem to be having bad luck,” said Johnson. “If one of us could just string together some good races and get in the clear and get away. I think that’s what the No. 24 has been able to do is just have some good, consistent races and built a nice gap. You’ve just got to keep fighting for every point.”