Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – He’s back. While much of the NASCAR community has been crunching numbers, making predictions and reviewing the statistical background of veterans Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson in effort to figure out which two would earn the final two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff positions, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Daniel Suárez has quietly and efficiently added his name to the mix.
In fact, after earning his second straight top-10 Saturday night under the Bristol Motor Speedway lights, the 27-year old Mexico-born driver and former NASCAR Xfinity Series champion (2016) has stepped over some of these veteran favorites and assumed his position in the title hunt.
A fifth place at Michigan a week ago, followed by an eighth place at Bristol on Saturday night – plus some well-needed stage points and some extraordinary poor luck suffered by the other Playoff hopefuls – and Suárez has found himself ranked 16th in the standings with two races remaining to set the 16-driver Playoff field.
In the last three races he’s out-performed and out-earned his veteran Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who are ranked 17th and 18th as the series takes an “off-week” before the final two regular season races at Darlington, S.C. on Sept. 1 and Indianapolis on Sept. 8.
Suárez trails 15th place Ryan Newman by 12 points. He has a two-point edge on teammate Bowyer and a 26-point advantage on Johnson.
“I feel like that [stage points] was probably the biggest thing of the day,” Suárez said of his team’s Bristol top-10. “I feel like that was an amazing call from my crew chief Billy Scott and I’m proud of that call. We have to just keep making those decisions.”
Decision-making, fast cars and decent luck will be important at the last two regular season venues – Darlington (S.C.) Raceway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They are both widely-considered among the most challenging tracks in auto racing.
Suárez has certainly had some trouble adjusting to the Darlington nuances – with finishes of 38th and 29th in his only starts at the 1.366-mile track known as being “Too Tough To Tame.” He’s been better at Indianapolis – with finishes of seventh and 18th in his only previous starts at the massive 2.5-mile speedway. He’s yet to lead a lap at either place.
Among those in this four-driver mix, Johnson is the only driver with multiple victories at both Darlington and Indianapolis. He has three wins at Darlington and 12 top-10 finishes in 20 starts. His 551 laps led is also most among this foursome. He suffered a DNF there last year, however. His last top 10 was a third-place finish in 2014.
The driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, has four wins at Indianapolis – seven top-10s in 17 starts. Johnson was runner-up in 2013 and third in 2016 – his last top-10.
Newman, the driver of the No. 6 Roush-Fenway Racing Ford, is the only other driver among these four with a win at one of the final regular season venues. He hasn’t hoisted a trophy at Darlington, but does have an impressive 13 top-10 finishes in 20 starts there, including a runner-up finish in his second career start in 2005. He was 19th there last Fall and had a pair of top-five finishes in the two races just prior.
Indianapolis, however, was the site of one Newman’s most celebrated victories. He won from the pole position in 2013. He has top-10 finishes in the last two races, including a 10th last year.
Bowyer, Suárez’s SHR teammate and driver of the No. 14 Ford, is certainly hoping for a change of fortune at Darlington, where he has only a single top-10 finish in 13 starts. He crashed and finished 36th last year and was 40th with an engine problem in 2017. He’s led 16 career laps at Darlington – all coming in the 2007 Spring race when he won the pole position and earned his only top-10 (ninth place).
Indianapolis has been better for Bowyer. He has four top-10 finishes in 13 races – three of those top-five finishes. He finished fifth last year and led 37 of his career 43 laps total.
With so much expectation – personally and from his team – Suárez acknowledged that he’s managing his emotions, even as he is genuinely enthusiastic about his Playoff hopes.
“I try to go like my normal weeks, but there is always that little pressure, especially since you guys [media] are always talking about it and reminding me of the bubble and the points and all that, which I think is good,” Suárez said.
“I have never been in this position before, where I actually was this close to be in the Playoffs. I don’t feel like I’ve ever been in the position where I feel as strong with my team, actually. I feel right now I really want to make the Playoffs because I feel we have a good team. We can perform strong once we are in.”