LONG POND, Pa. – Sunday’s Gander Outdoors 400 may not have produced a win for 26-year-old Daniel Suarez, but it was by far the closest he’s come in his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career to accomplishing the feat.
Suarez started from the pole, led 29 laps and contended among the top 10 virtually all afternoon. He was out front for the first 21 circuits around the 2.5-mile tri-oval before making his first pit stop, finished fifth in the first stage, then later returned to the point for seven laps mid-way through the second stage.
After that, Suarez and the other Toyota drivers ducked to pit road for service just before the second stage break, gaining track position ahead of the final stage that Suarez never relinquished again.
He remained fighting in the front five through the 60-lap slog to the finish, leading one more lap during the final round of green-flag pit stops, but it was during the final sequence of restarts that the Monterrey, Mexico native shone brightest.
Suarez restarted on the front row both times and pressured eventual race winner and teammate Kyle Busch as much as he could with the No. 19 Stanley Toyota during a double-overtime finish.
On the second overtime attempt, Suarez kept pace with Busch and side-drafted the 2015 Cup Series champion all the way to the entrance of turn one, but Busch got away when the third JGR car of Erik Jones tried to make things three-wide, leaving Suarez to fend off Alex Bowman and Jones for second.
“We did a good job. I feel like we put ourselves in position,” said Suarez. “We just have to put ourselves in position more often. If that starts to happen often, we are going to get (a win) soon. We just have to keep working hard, and maybe next time get a little bit more help from behind. I feel like that was all it was going to take, was just a little bit more (of a) push.
“The last restart was very good from my side. I was side drafting the 18 (Busch) very well,” Suarez noted. “I was even with him, and because we were even, the 20 (Jones) was coming with a big run. When I saw him coming, I started blocking him … but instead of pushing me he decided to try to take the lead as well, and after that obviously it was too late. I put myself in attack mode and defense mode at the same time. I knew it was going to be a little difficult, but we were able to recover second, which was good.”
Sunday was Suarez’s 57th-career Cup Series start. His previous career-best was third, achieved at both the Watkins Glen Int’l road course in 2017 and again at Dover Int’l Speedway earlier this season.
Five of the top-seven finishers in Sunday’s race were under the age of 30, with Suarez pointing out that he was glad the young stars of the sport are finally finding the speed to compete with the “Big Three” of Kevin Harvick, Busch and Martin Truex Jr.
“It was about time. I feel like we are late (to the party),” Suarez said. “Kyle, Martin and Kevin are great drivers and they have a lot of experience with great race teams. They have the whole package, and sometimes for a newer driver it’s a little bit more difficult to build that package. I feel like it takes time.
“It’s not a switch that you just can turn it on and you are suddenly going to be running great. It takes time, and it’s a process,” he continued. “But hopefully we can be one of the race teams that breaks that big three guys and gets the win.”