Sunday, July 7, 2019

CUP: Crazy Daytona race overshadows Daniel Suarez’ first Cup Series last-place finish

PHOTO: @Daniel_SuarezG
Daniel Suarez picked up the 1st last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #41 Haas Automation Ford was collected in a multi-car accident after 83 of 127 laps.

The finish came in Suarez’ 90th series start. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 40th for the #41, the 584th from a crash, and the 693rd for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 56th for the #41, the 953rd for Ford, and the 1,184th from a crash.

This season, the 27-year-old Suarez remains one of NASCAR’s most unique talents. The 2013 runner-up in the NASCAR Toyota Series championship, Suarez won ten races in his native Mexico, then worked his way through the K&N Pro Series into NASCAR’s top three series. He made his Truck Series debut at Talladega in 2014, finishing 15th for Kevin Cywinski, and 19th in his first XFINITY race at Richmond with Joe Gibbs. From there came a Truck Series win at Phoenix, then three in XFINITY en route to a dominating championship season in 2016 with 19 Top Fives and 27 Top Tens in 33 starts.

The unexpected retirement of Carl Edwards opened the door for Suarez to make the jump to Cup in 2017, where he finished 20th in points with a best of 3rd at Watkins Glen. He also prevailed in a spirited battle during his first Monster Energy Open at Charlotte, snatching away the victory from Chase Elliott in the final three laps. While he enjoyed a career run at Pocono the next year, winning the pole and leading 29 laps before he finished runner-up to teammate Kyle Busch, his performance leveled off that year, and he missed the Playoffs. The subsequent closing of Furniture Row Racing sealed his fate, as he was released in favor of a rideless technical partner in Martin Truex, Jr.

This year, Suarez has found a new home at Stewart-Haas Racing, taking the place of Kurt Busch in the #41 Ford. Much like Joey Logano before him, the former Gibbs driver has shown measured improvement. He's also gained more camera time after a scuffle with Michael McDowell at Phoenix and has a larger fan base called "Daniel's Amigos." Suarez climbed into Playoff contention after he finished 10th in the sixth race at Martinsville and had stayed in the Top 16 in points every week since. But a disappointing 24th-place finish at Chicagoland threatened to bump him back out. He arrived in Florida 15th in the standings, just 18 points to the good. Through it all, Suarez had yet to finish last in any of his 89 Cup starts, third-most among active drivers behind Brad Keselowski (358) and Chase Elliott (130).

In practice, Suarez ran 22nd in the first session and 26th in Happy Hour. The persistent rains that would come to haunt the weekend washed out qualifying, and Suarez secured 15th on the grid based on points.

With 40 cars entered for exactly that many spots, last on the grid went to Joey Gase. Gase would drive the returning third car from Rick Ware Racing, the #53, with sponsorship from Connected Claim Services and Action Restoration. When the rain-postponed race was pushed to Sunday morning, Gase incurred a redundant tail-end penalty for unapproved adjustments, the same thing that sent to the rear 13th-place Kyle Larson in the #42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet (who needed a new fuel probe, according to Bob Pockrass), 25th-place Matt DiBenedetto in the #95 Procore Toyota, 35th-place B.J. McLeod in the #51 Jacob Companies Chevrolet, 39th-place Brendan Gaughan in the #62 Beard Oil / South Point Chevrolet, and 34th-place starter Justin Haley, making just his third Cup start in Spire Motorsports’ #77 Fraternal Order of Eagles Chevrolet. William Byron also went to the rear after contact from Brad Keselowski in practice sent him to a backup #24 Axalta Patriotic Chevrolet.

Three minutes before airtime, the field rolled off pit road with multiple cars stopping at the exit of pit road before rejoining the pack, including Parker Kligerman, Matt Tifft, J.J. Yeley, and Gaughan. Gaughan slotted in at the back of the field, and remarked at an issue with one of the black cars in front of him. “Is that speedy dry or is that guy blowing up?” he radioed. “Guy in front of 96, that guy was a plume of smoke.” As the laps continued McLeod’s #51 and DiBenedetto’s #95 pulled to the rear, followed by Ross Chastain in the blue #27 Xchange of America Chevrolet, who pulled to the inside on the backstretch. McLeod and Haley then pulled behind Chastain just before the race went green.

On the break, McLeod held the low lane with Haley to his outside, but both were held up by Chastain, who was slow coming through the gears. Haley cleared Chastain first, leaving McLeod in last into Turn 1. As the field came around to complete the first lap, however, McLeod zipped past a slow black car to his inside. This was Quin Houff, Michigan’s last-place finisher, who was swapped into Premium Motorsports’ #15 The Elease Project Chevrolet for the first time this season. Houff immediately lost touch with the pack, and after five laps was 27.6 seconds back and losing ground quickly. The #15 was under power from what was found to be a loose plug wire, keeping him at just 175mph, several seconds off the pace.

After eight laps, race leader Joey Logano pulled the lead pack to Houff’s outside just before the start / finish line, passing him in two and three-wide formation. The final three cars on the track lapped him on the 17th go-round, followed soon after by the leaders, putting him a second lap down. The leaders caught and passed him a third time on Lap 28, this time in Turns 1 and 2. The crew called him to pit road, and on Lap 38 he came in by himself, then made a hard left turn into the first garage opening. “It fires up, but it just sputters out, like the choke's put on it,” said someone on the crew. Houff continued to lose laps as the crew worked under the hood, then fired the engine on Lap 53. He returned to the track just as Stage 1 had ended, now 18 laps down.

The race restarted on Lap 56 with Houff now mired in traffic with eight more cars behind him. This time, he managed to keep up with a three-car pack of his own led by last-place Gase and his teammate J.J. Yeley in the #52 Ford.

Suarez didn’t enter the last-place picture until Lap 84, when trouble broke out in the tri-oval. Following a restart for a tangle between Kurt Busch and Brendan Gaughan, Kevin Harvick bumped Brad Keselowski near the stripe, turning the #2 Miller Lite Ford into the outside wall. While most drivers somehow avoided the melee, Suarez steered left and sideswiped Daniel Hemric’s #8 Cessna Chevrolet, sending both cars spinning to the inside. While Suarez didn’t appear to receive serious damage, he pulled slowly down pit road with something loose on the rear of the car.

With the whole field still running, the cars involved in the accident changed positions rapidly. Hemric was ranked last when the caution fell, but passed Harvick, Keselowski, and the damaged David Ragan as he came onto pit road. This put Keselowski in last for a moment as a report came from NBC that Keselowski was done for the day and would go to the garage. The result would have been his first-ever Cup Series last-place finish, so long as Houff remained on track long enough. Instead, both Keselowski and Ragan returned to the track to log laps, preventing either from finishing in last. Only Suarez pulled into the garage, taking last from Hemric as he, too rejoined the race. First Keselowski, then Ragan pulled in under the ensuing caution after running two and three slow laps, respectively.

Back on the track, Houff remained at speed, but due to approaching weather looked like he would run out of time before he could catch Suarez. On Lap 102, when the second stage ended, Houff and Suarez were on the same lap. When another caution lap was turned, Houff passed Suarez, leaving the #41 in last. It was also Suarez' first bottom-five finish of the season. Houff would ultimately climb past both Keselowski and Ragan before the day’s biggest pileup drew the final caution of the race. Rain ultimately ended the affair with Houff 11 laps short of passing Ryan Blaney’s #12 Body Armor Ford, the lowest-ranked of those eliminated in the Turn 1 pileup.

Finding himself in the lead as lightning struck and rain fell was Justin Haley, who followed-up his runner-up finish in Friday’s XFINITY race and strong run in his Cup debut at Talladega with his first Cup win. Haley inherited the lead after leaders Kurt Busch and Landon Cassill pitted during a one lap to go signal that was then rescinded, costing both a shot at victory. The win was also the first for Spire Motorsports, the team that acquired the Charter from the shuttered Furniture Row Racing. While ineligible for the Cup Series playoffs as he’d declared for XFINITY points, Haley earned just the second-ever Cup win for the #77 in a points race, the first since August 9, 1959 by Joe Lee Johnson at the Nashville Fairgrounds.

Finishing 4th in the #13 GEICO Chevrolet was Ty Dillon, a career-best finish following a previous best of 6th in the last two points races at Daytona.

Corey LaJoie, the 2018 LASTCAR Cup Series Champion, earned a career-best 6th, his first-ever top-ten finish, in the #32 Shine Armor Ford. LaJoie’s own previous best was 11th, which came both at Talladega earlier this year and the July Daytona race two seasons ago.

Matt DiBenedetto followed-up his strong run in the Daytona 500 and career-best 4th at Sonoma with an 8th-place finish, his second Top Ten in the last three races in the #95 Procore Toyota.

Matt Tifft earned a career-best 9th in the #38 Ron Jon Surf Shop Ford, his first-ever Top Ten and improving on his previous best of 20th at Phoenix and Charlotte.

Landon Cassill’s 11th-place finish is tied for his second-best in a Cup race and is the new team-best for Derrike Cope’s team StarCom Racing, whose previous was an 18th at Las Vegas last fall.

J.J. Yeley’s #52 Ford finished 12th, his best finish since the 2013 running of this race. It also ties Justin Marks’ 12th-place run in the 2018 Daytona 500 for the best-ever Cup finish by Rick Ware Racing.

*This was the first last-place finish for Stewart-Haas Racing’s #41 team in a Cup points race. The last time the #41 finished last was April 27, 2008, when Reed Sorenson lost an engine 4 laps into the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega. The number’s only other Cup last-place finish at Daytona came on July 2, 2005, when Casey Mears’ #41 Target dodge crashed after 35 laps of the Pepsi 400.
*The 83 laps complete by Suarez are the fourth-most of a Cup Series last-place finisher of the July race at Daytona. The other three were also first-time last-placers: Andy Houston (86 laps in 2001), Chris Buescher (89 laps in 2016), and Denny Hamlin (99 laps in 2007).

40) #41-Daniel Suarez / 83 laps / crash
39) #2-Brad Keselowski / 85 laps / crash
38) #38-David Ragan / 86 laps / crash
37) #15-Quin Houff / 108 laps / running
36) #12-Ryan Blaney / 118 laps / crash / led 1 lap

1st) Rick Ware Racing (5)
2nd) Front Row Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing (3)
3rd) Chip Ganassi Racing (2)
4th) Germain Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Motorsports Business Management, Richard Childress Racing, Spire Motorsports (1)

1st) Chevrolet (9)
2nd) Ford (7)
3rd) Toyota (2)


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