By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
The Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway was a mixed bag for the 2017 Sunoco Rookie of the Year (ROTY) contenders in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. All of the rookies have had previous experience at Richmond in other NASCAR Series. Two of the ROTY contenders ran relatively well, others fell short.
Daniel Suarez had the best starting position of the five rookies, placing his No. 19 ARRIS Toyota Camry 11th on the starting grid. Early in the final stage, Suarez nearly hit Dale Earnhardt Jr. Although, he was close enough that the air sent Earnhardt up the track in turns one and two.
Later in the race, Suarez benefited when his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Matt Kenseth cut down a tire. Debris from Kenseth’s car forced a caution, and Suarez was the lucky dog. Suarez ultimately went on to finish 12th, and best of the 2017 Rookie class.
Suarez was not thrilled by his finish, but was proud of the recovery his team had.
“I think it was okay,” Suarez said. “The first half of the race it was very tough. In the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, it’s just so difficult. You get behind one or two adjustments and then you get a lap down or two laps down and it’s very difficult to recover that.”
“Luckily we got a lot of cautions right there at the end and I was able to overcome those laps down that I was down. Very proud of the team. They never give up. They were working hard on the race to try to make it better. I just feel like we have to work hard in the first third – first half – of the race to try to stay with the rest of the guys.”
Ty Dillon started 24th in his No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet SS. By the end of Stage 1, Dillon was the only ROTY contender still on the lead lap. In Stage 2, he had moved inside the Top 10.
Late in the race, Dillon was running well within the Top 15, far and away the best of the rookie class. That changed when the caution waved when Earnhardt Jr. spun into the outside wall. Under the caution, Dillon and Clint Bowyer collided. Dillon’s car was not the same afterwards, and he slipped to finishing 26th, behind fellow rookie Suarez.
Gray Gaulding started 31st in the No. 23 sweetfrog Toyota Camry. Gaulding’s race ended where he started, quietly in 31st, two laps down.
Corey LaJoie was the lowest on the starting grid of the ROTY contenders, rolling off 34th in the No. 83 EJ Wade Construction Toyota Camry. In Stage 1, LaJoie contacted Kyle Busch, who was fighting from the back of the field after a pit road speeding penalty. Aside from LaJoie’s contact with Busch, his race was relatively quiet, and he finished four laps down in 32nd.
For Erik Jones, the Toyota Owners 400 was over almost before it began. He started 20th despite being near the top of the speed charts in all three practice sessions. On lap one, contact with Kasey Kahne caused Jones’ No. 77 GameStop/Prey Toyota Camry to slap the wall. The damage ultimately cut Jones’ left front tire a few laps later as he entered turn three. His car went straight, clobbering the outside wall, ending his day. Jones ended up the worst of the Rookie contingent, finishing 38th. As a result of the contact, Jones was not happy with the way Kahne raced him.
“Well, we got three-wide right on the start and then the 5 (Kahne) ran us up into the fence,” said Jones. “I was trying not to wreck everybody and we got run into the wall by the 5 and then a couple laps later we cut a left front, so it’s really unfortunate. We only made five laps, 10 laps of the race and we’re already out, so it’s just really a heartbreaking day. It’s not what we wanted, but we’ll just have to come back next week, bring another fast race car and try to run up front again.”
The 2017 Sunoco Rookie class will now head to Talladega Superspeedway where they will look to pull off the upset and steal a victory away from the veterans.