Sunday, March 6, 2022

CUP: Daniel Suarez wreck nearly followed by Team Trackhouse bookending the Las Vegas field

PHOTO: Dominic Aragon,

Daniel Suarez picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 Presented by Jiffy Lube at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway when his #99 CommScope Chevrolet was involved in a crash after 92 of 274 laps.

The finish, which came in Suarez’ 182nd series start, was his first of the season and first since July 7, 2019 at Daytona, 93 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 18th for the #99, the 626th from a crash, and the 819th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 38th for the #99, the 1,282nd from a crash, and the 1,823rd for Chevrolet.

Last week at the Auto Club Speedway, Suarez got alongside of race leader Kyle Larson with just three laps to go and cleared him for the top spot coming off Turn 2. For a few seconds, the Mexico-born driver appeared headed to his first Cup Series victory in his 181st series start. This was at the start of his second season with newcomers Trackhouse Racing, a collaboration between former driver Justin Marks, recording artist Pitbull, and - at least rumored last year - motivational speaker Tony Robbins. Just under a year earlier, Suarez had been in this same spot, leading 58 laps in the inaugural dirt race at Bristol. But just as Joey Logano cleared him that day, Kyle Larson passed Suarez with a dive-bomb coming to two to go, ultimately taking the checkered flag.

At Las Vegas, Suarez ran 33rd of the 37 entrants in practice, then improved in qualifying to take 21st with a lap of 178.696mph (30.219 seconds).

Taking the 37th and final starting spot was Kyle Busch, who wrecked his #18 Ethel M Chocolates Toyota in opening practice, backing his left-rear into the fence hard enough to break the rear windscreen. This forced the team to go to a backup, namely an undecorated Toyota with teammate Denny Hamlin’s name on the rear glass. The Joe Gibbs Racing crew spent eight hours getting the car ready, completing the new wrap well after darkness fell over the Neon Garage. Busch was the only driver to not take time in qualifying, and would incur a redundant tail-end penalty for the backup.

Joining Busch in the back were three more cars with pre-race penalties. Tyler Reddick’s crew swapped out the steering rack on his 7th-place starting #8 Bet MGM Chevrolet, Daniel Hemric’s transaxle overheated on his 16th-place #16 South Point Hotel & Casino Chevrolet, forcing a change of the cooling lines, and an errant engine part was the listed reason for Cole Custer’s #41 Ford, set to line up 24th. Also dropping back voluntarily was Garrett Smithley, whose #15 Trophy Tractor Ford was set to line up 36th.

When the green flag dropped, Smithley was already up to 34th ahead of the penalized Reddick and Busch. Last place had fallen to B.J. McLeod, who surrendered the 35th starting spot in his #78 Filtertime Ford. McLeod. NASCAR originally had Busch line up last on the inside line behind McLeod, but intervals showed McLeod last across the stripe, 4.256 back of the lead, three-tenths back of Busch. Smithley slipped to 36th on the first lap, and the #78 gradually lost touch with Smithley’s Ford. By Lap 6, McLeod was 1.170 back of Smithley, and Smithley was more than a second back of 35th place by Lap 8.

On Lap 12, McLeod began to reel in Smithley, who was warned by the team he was using too much brake. McLeod brought the deficit down to nine-tenths of a second on Lap 13, and Smithley soon reported he was losing the nose. By Lap 16, McLeod was 0.147 back of Smithley, and the pair were side-by-side at the stripe on Lap 18, just 0.018 apart. McLeod completed the pass, and the pair were lapped on the 22nd circuit. Smithley received adjustments under the competition caution on Lap 30, and he dropped McLeod to last again on Lap 37, when both checked-up for a spinning Cole Custer that brought out the caution. McLeod narrowly avoided contact, and discussed how to improve his own car’s handling. The crew estimated his car was leaning too far to the left while many of the leaders took a neutral stance. Another caution allowed for adjustments, and McLeod dropped Smithley back to last on Lap 48.

PHOTO: @Daniel_SuarezG

In the following run, Smithley was encouraged to go after McLeod, the team telling him he was a tenth faster than the #78. The team continued to tell him to go easy on the brakes through still another caution on Lap 64, when Tyler Reddick spun off Turn 4. This caution put McLeod back on the lead lap, making Smithley the only lapped car in the field with all 37 still running. Smithley remained a lap down when Stage 1 ended on Lap 80, and reported his car started strong but gradually became tighter four laps into a run. Persistence paid off, and Smithley got his own lap back under caution on Lap 85.

On the Lap 88 restart, all 37 cars were back on the lead lap with Smithley bringing up the rear. The car then apparently snapped loose, and by the next time by was already 2.164 seconds back of new 36th-place runner Josh Bilicki in the #77 Zeigler Auto Group Chevrolet. Bilicki then re-passed McLeod for the 35th spot, but Smithley was still continuing to lose ground to the pack. On Lap 93, he was 6.265 seconds back of McLeod when the caution fell for a wreck on the frontstretch.

Only here did Suarez enter the last-place battle. Fighting for the 12th spot, just 5.612 seconds back of the lead, Suarez was catching a pack of cars off Turn 4. Ahead of him, Erik Jones in the #43 FocusFactor Chevrolet broke loose under Michael McDowell in the #34 Stage Front Ford, causing Chase Briscoe to check up on the outside. Briscoe’s #14 Mahindra Tractors Ford then broke loose and slammed doors with Suarez, sending the #99 spinning up the track. Suarez slammed the outside wall head-on, then skated to a stop on the apron. He climbed out without serious injury, but done for the day. With everyone on the lead lap, Suarez took last on Lap 94, and NASCAR declared him out of the race on Lap 112.

Also declared out on Lap 112 was Ryan Blaney, whose #12 Menards / Pennzoil Ford had nowhere to go when Brad Keselowski’s #6 Fastenal Ford spun in front of him off Turn 4. Chase Briscoe, who already suffered damage in the Suarez incident, received more damage in the same incident and ultimately dropped out with crash damage just over 30 laps later. Greg Biffle’s first start since Daytona saw his NY Racing Team entry again felled by a fuel pump issue, stopping his #44 Florida A&M University Chevrolet after 148 laps. Rounding out the Bottom Five was Cole Custer, whose engine let go, stranding him on the apron just past the starting line. Custer was declared out by NASCAR on Lap 187, ten laps after Briscoe and Biffle.

Ironically, it was Suarez’ teammate Ross Chastain who had a more successful day. After finishing last in the Daytona 500 and going to a backup car in Fontana, Chastain led a race-high 83 laps, more than his combined career total to that point of 75 laps. He led as late as Lap 226 before Toyota drivers Kyle Busch and Martin Truex, Jr. swept past, apparently set to settle the win between each other. A late-race caution gave Chastain another shot, climbing him past Busch an Truex to take the 3rd spot at the finish. The result was Chastain’s fourth Top Five of his career, and perhaps his best overall performance since his 3rd-place run in last fall’s Southern 500.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #99 in a Cup Series race since August 18, 2018, when Gray Gaulding’s #99 StarCom Fiber Chevrolet, then fielded by StarCom Racing, was in a multi-car crash after 1 lap of the Bass Pro Shops / NRA Night Race at Bristol. The number had never before finished last in a Cup race at Las Vegas.

37) #99-Daniel Suarez / 92 laps / crash
36) #12-Ryan Blaney / 104 laps / crash
35) #14-Chase Briscoe / 135 laps / crash
34) #44-Greg Biffle / 148 laps / fuel pump / led 1 lap
33) #41-Cole Custer / 171 laps / engine

1st) Trackhouse Racing (2)
2nd) Joe Gibbs Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (2)
2nd) Toyota (1)


1 comment:

NASCAR said...

Greg Biffle led 1 lap under caution just before his fuel pump issue.