Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – WATKINS GLEN, NY – Daniel Suárez heads into Sunday’s Go Bowling at The Glen, 28 points behind Bubba Wallace – in the first position outside the Playoff-eligible top 16 drivers.
The only NASCAR Cup Series victory of his career came on a road course (Sonoma, Calif.) last year and the driver of the No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet arrives in upstate New York for Sunday’s Go Bowling at The Glen feeling very optimistic.
A victory this week or in next week’s regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway would be an automatic Playoff entry. Yet, Suárez’ approach is that he doesn’t want the team focusing on making the Playoffs, the 31-year old Mexican driver wants them to be focused on winning the championship – the two goals going hand-in-hand, obviously. And he’s been good at The Glen with three top-five finishes in five starts and an average finish of 12.0.
It appeared as if Suárez was headed for that Playoff ticket at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course last weekend. He won pole position, led six of the 82 laps – and was up front all race – but a miscue on a pit stop cost him and was never able to seriously challenge winner Michael McDowell afterward.
Following the event Suárez said he had the “longest meeting ever” with his pit crew.
“That 23-second stop should have been 15-second and if it was, I would have won the race,’’ Suárez said, adding, “We failed at Indianapolis, but success comes from failure.
“I can tell you my pit crew is hungry, I’m hungry and my engineers are hungry. I can tell you we are in a good place to fight.’’
“The 99-team is ready for battle,’’ he added with a smile.
Wrapping Up the Regular Season Title
Martin Truex Jr. acknowledged there is a sense of familiarity between this season and his incredible 2017 NASCAR Cup Series championship run.
He currently holds a 60-point advantage over his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Hamlin in second place. All Truex needs is to leave Watkins Glen with a 61-point advantage to officially claim the regular season title – his second. Asked if this season – three victories plus the Busch Light Clash win and nine top-five finishes – was on par with how he felt in his 2017 run for glory, Truex conceded there were similarities.
“I feel like in our years where we won our championship or finished second and were right there it was kind of the same feeling,’’ Truex said. “Every week was okay, we’re right there and if we do everything right, we’re going to be in the hunt for the win. Yeah, that feels good and hopefully we can keep that up for the next 12 races.”
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Gibbs is attempting to become only the sixth NASCAR Cup Series rookie to earn a position in the Playoffs. He starts Sunday’s race ranked 19th – 49 points off the cutline – essentially needing a victory either this week at Watkins Glen or next week in the Daytona International Speedway season finale to secure a chance at the 2023 championship run.
Gibbs won the 2021 Xfinity Series race here at Watkins Glen and will be one of four NASCAR Cup Series drivers to compete in this weekend’s doubleheader – and he started the weekend off by winning the pole position for Saturday afternoon’s Xfinity Series race and earning a fourth place position on the grid for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race.
In speaking with the media on Saturday, Gibbs insisted that although he essentially has two races remaining to secure a Playoff position, he prepares for every race the same; not allowing himself to get any more intense for these last two Playoff shots.
“I feel like I prepare the same for every race and with my little experience in the Cup Series compared to these guys, I have to work really hard at it and try to just do the best I can and go win,’’ said Gibbs, who drives the No. 54 JGR Toyota.
“I was closer than I am now,’’ he said of losing points in the last couple weeks. “But it’s really cool and I’m very blessed to be in this position and I’ve got a great team around me and it would be great to make the Playoffs.
“I think you just go win or you somehow have great points days.”
Austin Hill Re-ups with RCR
Richard Childress Racing started the Watkins Glen race weekend off with an important announcement, the team has re-signed NASCAR Xfinity Series championship leader Austin Hill extending his contract through an undisclosed number of years.
Hill, who drives the No. 21 RCR Chevrolet, said several teams had reached out to him but that ultimately it came down to loyalty and a solid relationship with the championship owner Childress. The contract includes at least a full 2024 Xfinity Series drive, but indicated if RCR got a third NASCAR Cup Series charter, things could change.
“At the end of the day, Richard [Childress] made it pretty tough on me, just because of the man he is and everything we did last season and this season together’’ said Hill, who holds an 11-point edge on John Hunter Nemechek for the regular season championship with four races to go in the regular season.
“I’m just very very loyal to a fault and I think Richard and I share the same values, like the same things and it makes it very easy to work with someone like Richard Childress… There’s a lot of things outside of just driving the race car that made sense to me and that’s what made it – at the end of the day, an easy decision – to stay here with RCR and to kind of keep building that momentum with them going forward and hopefully get to do that for a really long time.”