Sunday, July 23, 2023

CUP: Daniel Suarez and Joey Logano battle for last place after mid-race Pocono wreck

PHOTO: Speedway Collective, @SCfantasyRacing

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Daniel Suarez picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s 400 at the Pocono Raceway when his #99 Jockey Chevrolet was involved in a multi-car accident after 37 of 160 laps.

The finish, which came in Suarez’ 236th series start, was his first of the season and first in a Cup Series race since March 6, 2022 at Las Vegas, 54 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 19th for the #99, the 654th from a crash, and the 844th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 39th for the #99, the 1,344th from a crash, and the 1,903rd for Chevrolet.

Last year, Suarez impressed with his determination under tremendous pressure. In his second year driving for upstart Trackhouse Racing, he couldn’t win his first race before his new teammate Ross Chastain, who in just his sixth start for the program won a physical race at COTA. Chastain nearly broke through even earlier in the third round at Las Vegas - the very race where Suarez finished last. By the summer, Chastain had another win at Talladega, a developing rivalry with Denny Hamlin, and became a championship favorite. After three straight finishes of 23rd or worse, Suarez arrived at Sonoma, where he finally broke through, winning ahead of a surprising Chris Buescher and Michael McDowell. While Chastain made the Championship Four with his famous “Hail Melon,” Suarez earned a career-best 10th in points.

This season has seen stiffer competition for both Trackhouse drivers. Chastain only won his first race of the year four races ago in Nashville, which two races later was followed by Suarez’ season-best runner-up finish to William Byron when the rain fell in Atlanta. Suarez entered the race on the wrong side of the Playoff cutline, needing a strong performance entering the final month of the regular season.

At Pocono, Suarez ran 18th of the 36 Chartered entries who made up the race’s entry list. He then ran 8th-fastest in Qualifying Round 1B, which secured him 17th on the grid with a lap of 167.948mph (53.588 seconds). 

Securing 36th and last on the grid was Todd Gilliland, whose #38 Speedy Cash Ford spun in the tunnel turn during his qualifying lap. The same thing happened to 37th-place Chase Elliott in the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, and both didn’t register a speed. Each required tire changes and minor repairs, incurring a redundant tail-end penalty for unapproved adjustments. Elliott’s repairs included a fix to the undertray. Not penalized was 10th-place qualifier Bubba Wallace, whose #23 Leidos Toyota didn’t log a time in Round 2 after getting into the wall in Turn 1.

When the green flag dropped, Gilliland pulled ahead of Elliott on the inside line, showing a gap from the leader at 2.264 seconds to Elliott’s 2.667. Elliott bumped Ryan Preece’s #41 Mohawk Northeast Ford, then pulled to his outside in Turn 1 while also clearing Ty Dillon’s #77 Gainbridge Chevrolet. But Gilliland’s car broke loose in the high lane, ultimately dropping back to last place at the end of Lap 1, 6.018 back of the lead and 0.355 behind new 35th-place runner B.J. McLeod in the #78 B’laster Chevrolet. McLeod was himself locked in a side-by-side battle with Elliott, the pair of them just eight-thousandths apart. Both Elliott and Gilliland then passed McLeod, who on Lap 3 was now in last place, 8.773 back of the lead and 0.644 behind Gilliland’s Ford. Gilliland now set to work on J.J. Yeley, whose #15 Patriot Mobile Ford was previously battling Ryan Preece’s #41. On Lap 5, Yeley held off Gilliland for 34th while McLeod drew within 0.111 of Gilliland, bringing the three nose-to-tail. But coming off Turn 2, Yeley’s car pushed and Gilliland got into his rear bumper, sending Yeley spinning to the inside. Yeley’s right-front struck the inside barrier, resulting in a spin that left him stalled facing backwards.

Under the resulting caution, Yeley tried to drive away, but he’d flattened both right side tires and was also blocked by an equipment truck that arrived at the scene in front of him. The truck then pushed him back to pit road, during which time he lost two laps to the leaders. Yeley told the crew to look behind the left-front wheel to check for suspension damage from his hit into the wall. On Lap 9, after a tire change, Yeley returned to the track three laps down, then made another stop for the crew to look under the hood. The crew worked quickly, managing to avoid losing a fourth lap, and Yeley caught up with the tail end of the field, putting him behind teammate Cole Custer in the #51 Jacob Companies Ford. Shortly after the Lap 11 restart, Yeley cleared the “Crash Clock” by reaching minimum speed. The goal now was to reach the end of Stage 1 for more adjustments. Yeley radioed that his car felt “real darty,” and that he had to slow the car down to get it to turn. 

In the final laps of Stage 1, several drivers pitted before pit road was closed. First was an unscheduled Lap 14 stop for Corey LaJoie, whose #7 TD Bank Chevrolet scraped the wall off Turn 1 and cut down a tire. The crew changed just right-side tires, sending him back out on the lead lap more than 20 seconds back of 34th-place Cole Custer. LaJoie’s deficit to Custer remained about the same, though the #7 did pass Yeley on Lap 28 as both entered Turn 2. As the leaders began to come in for scheduled stops, the 35th spot soon fell to Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who lost a lap in his #47 Blue Buffalo Chevrolet. Stenhouse was about to take the Lucky Dog from Yeley, but on Lap 30 – the last lap of the stage – Stenhouse passed then-leader Joey Logano’s #22 Verizon Ford entering Turn 1 to put himself back on the lead lap. The caution fell on Lap 31, and Yeley was now two laps down. Yeley pitted at least once under the caution, during which time the crew made further repairs under the hood without losing another lap.
Logano is towed to pit road after the wreck with Suarez.
PHOTO: No Tires Just Gas on YouTube

The race restarted on Lap 36 with Stage 1 winner Logano now stuck in heavy traffic after pit stops. Heading into Turn 1, Logano was around 13th place in the middle lane when he was bumped from behind by Michael McDowell in the #34 Benebone Ford. Logano then lost control, bouncing between Stenhouse to his inside and Tyler Reddick’s #45 Jordan Brand Toyota to his outside before he was hooked hard to the right. McDowell then cut hard left to clear Logano, causing a second logjam that caused Bubba Wallace’s #23 to bump Suarez into a spin of his own. While Logano only made minor contact with the left-front of his Ford, Suarez spun up the track and struck the barrier hard with the nose of his car.

Back under caution, Suarez managed to get his car rolling again, saying his engine was still running and gauges looked fine. But NASCAR told him to run the apron, fearing he was dropping fluid as his car trailed smoke. While Suarez made it to pit road, Logano was stranded much as Yeley had been earlier, his tires flat and car pointed the wrong way. Much like Sage Karam in the XFINITY race the previous day, it was decided on Lap 38 to tow Logano’s car backwards to pit road. This caused visible damage to Logano’s splitter and caused his left-front tire to come apart by the time he reached the entrance to the pits. By then, Suarez had less than four minutes left on his “Crash Clock,” and both he and Logano were two laps down. Yeley earned his second “Lucky Dog” under this caution, moving him to 35th, one lap down. Suarez now held last place with Logano in 35th.

As the Trackhouse crew worked on the #99, they discovered it was leaking both water and oil, and the tethers on the mangled hood had to be cut away to examine the engine. On Lap 39, Suarez’ crew sent him back out to try and run another lap. Again, NASCAR told Suarez to run the inside line, and again, the driver insisted that the engine was still running properly. It was on this lap that Logano’s car finally arrived on pit road, where the tow truck left it facing the wrong way in the #22 team’s pit. Logano’s crew removed both left side tires and set to work. On Lap 40, Suarez was told by his crew that he was leaking oil from a crack in the oil line that they couldn’t find. But by going out, they had now climbed to 35th, putting Logano in last place.

On Lap 41, Suarez returned to pit road, then pulled behind the wall, done for the day under the “Damaged Vehicle Policy.” At that moment, Suarez was still in 35th and two laps ahead of last-place Logano. With less than a minute left on the “Crash Clock,” Logano re-fired the engine and returned to the track, though still off the pace. Just ahead, 34th-place Yeley wasn’t allowed to choose a lane due to a pit road speeding penalty. Logano’s plan was to at least pass Suarez to take 35th, then pull into the garage one lap after the green flag. But on the Lap 42 restart, there was another incident in Turn 1 when Austin Dillon spun his #3 Bretztri Chevrolet. Dillon continued without serious damage, meaning Logano wouldn’t gain another spot under the caution. What it did mean was that J.J. Yeley had earned his third-straight “Lucky Dog” and was now back on the lead lap. 
Suarez pulls into the garage after turning a 37th lap.

Under the Dillon caution, Logano continued to drive around the track, and unlike Suarez was not told to run the apron. He did incur a redundant tail-end penalty for improper fueling – which may have been due to how the tow truck had left his car in its stall. On Lap 45, Logano dropped Suarez back to last place, then lined up for the Lap 46 restart. But once again, there was trouble in Turn 1 – this time Kyle Larson’s #5 Chevrolet was spun from 2nd place off the nose of Christopher Bell’s #20 Yahoo! Toyota. Like Dillon, Larson had minor damage to the rear of his car, but continued. And though he didn’t have a spot to gain, Logano did earn the Lucky Dog and  was now five laps down. “About 30 more of those and we’re back in this thing,” Logano said with a laugh. Both Logano and his Penske Racing team discussed their options, and the driver doubted he’d be able to reach minimum speed. There also weren’t more spots to gain, though B.J. McLeod was reportedly having a steering rack issue.

On Lap 51, when NASCAR confirmed Suarez was out of the race, Logano let the field roll away from him. A lap later, the #22 was the only car to not reach minimum speed. When the speed didn’t improve on Lap 54, Logano’s crew called him to pit road, followed seconds later by NASCAR calling him to the garage under the “Damaged Vehicle Policy.” With that, Logano came to pit road and pulled into the same garage entrance used by Suarez. After falling two laps down to Suarez following their incident, Logano ended up completing 11 more laps to secure 35th.

Taking 34th was Austin Dillon, whose second encounter with the Turn 1 wall ended his afternoon. Entering Turn 1 on Lap 105, Dillon had recovered from his restart spin to take 11th place, only to cross the nose of Tyler Reddick’s #45. Dillon spun up the track and made hard contact with the passenger side, this time eliminating him from the race. Dillon climbed from his car without serious injury and threw his helmet at Reddick’s car as it passed. It bounced just behind Reddick’s car. Justin Haley took 33rd after his #31 LeafFilter Gutter Protection Chevrolet spun in Turn 2, nearly collecting several cars before he slapped the wall with the driver’s side. As Haley was checked and released from the infield care center, B.J. McLeod took 32nd, one of only two drivers to finish off the lead lap. The other was Ryan Preece, whose stall after a spin forced the race to end under caution.

Ty Gibbs’ first career Top Five among impressive runs

One year after he first drove in relief of an injured Kurt Busch, Ty Gibbs in the #54 He Gets Us Toyota returned to Pocono and finished 5th, leading 4 laps and earning stage points along the way. It was Gibbs’ first career top-five finish in only his 36th series start. The race also saw impressive runs by two of the sport’s most iconic numbers. Harrison Burton finished 8th in the Wood Brothers’ #21 DEX Imaging Ford, his first top-ten finish since his season-best 6th in Darlington. Erik Jones scored 9th in Legacy Motor Club’s #43 U.S. Air Force Chevrolet, marking the fourth time in the last five races he’s finished 11th or better.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #99 in a Cup Series race at Pocono.

36) #99-Daniel Suarez / 37 laps / crash 
35) #22-Joey Logano / 48 laps / dvp / led 21 laps / won stage 1 
34) #3-Austin Dillon / 105 laps / crash
33) #31-Justin Haley / 153 laps / crash
32) #78-B.J. McLeod / 159 laps / running

1st) Spire Motorsports (4)
2nd) Penske Racing (3)
3rd) Joe Gibbs Racing, Legacy Motor Club, Live Fast Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Rick Ware Racing (2)
4th) Hendrick Motorsports, Kaulig Racing, Trackhouse Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (13)
2nd) Ford (5)
3rd) Toyota (2)


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