NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Tracking the Trucks: Daniel Suarez Scores First Career Victory in Phoenix

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In a Nutshell: Daniel Suarez finished 0.510 seconds ahead of Johnny Sauter to score his first career Truck Series win in Friday night’s Lucas Oil 150. Suarez, who had one of the two strongest trucks in the field, took advantage of teammate William Byron‘s blown motor and led the final 12 circuits en route to Victory Lane. Matt Crafton, Cameron Hayley and Timothy Peters rounded out the top 5.

Who Should Have Won: Simply put, William Byron had the truck to beat and even pulled as far as five seconds ahead of the field at one point. If not for the blown motor, there’s no question he would have been in Victory Lane instead of his teammate.

Race Rundown:

Heartbreak for William Byron

William Byron started on the pole and did exactly what he’s done the majority of the season: lead a ton of laps – a race-high 112 – and check out on the rest of the field.

But with just eight laps remaining in Friday night’s race, the rookie’s championship hopes went up in smoke, literally. The blown motor forced Byron to retire to a disappointing 27th-place finish, enough to drop him out of the Championship 4.

“I don’t know what happened. I think the motor just blew up. We had been running hot a little bit the last run and kind of all night, but it stayed within temp range and just started to vibrate maybe the lap before,” Byron said after climbing from his truck, visibly upset. “I thought it was the tires and didn’t think it was a big deal; it just sputtered and had flames coming out the cowl right there. Just stinks for this team, they’ve worked so hard. It just happens I guess. Great Liberty University Tundra – thanks to all the guys at KBM (Kyle Busch Motorsports). We’ll go to Homestead and try to get a win.”

Byron’s season has been something of a surprise to many. While there was the expectation that he would excel, especially in KBM equipment, no one pegged him to score six wins in his rookie year. The part that really stinks for the No. 9 team is that a single race knocked it out of the championship battle, especially in such a strong season where Byron finished outside the top 10 just seven times (including Friday’s race).

The initial thought is that there’s got to be some sort of waiver or pass or something to put the driver with the most wins into the championship battle when that field is set for season finale. But the reality is that all of the teams racing for the championship have faced the same set of rules and the same elimination-style Chase format the entire year. And while it’s a tough pill to swallow, it’s a part of this Chase format, regardless of how anyone feels about it.

(Photo by Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images)
William Byron’s incredible rookie season fell one race short of a championship. (Photo by Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images)

The bottom line is that while it’s difficult for Byron to be on the outside looking in at the Championship 4 next weekend, the 18-year-old has one heck of a career ahead of him. And after the checkered flag flies over Homestead-Miami Speedway, he’ll move on to JR Motorsports in the XFINITY Series and roll forward in that career progression.

Championship 4 Set

When the checkered flag flew over Phoenix Friday night, the inaugural Championship 4 in the Chase for the Championship was set, but clearly, it wasn’t without its spots of drama (see: William Byron).

Johnny Sauter entered Phoenix with very little care in the world, having locked up his spot in the final round two races earlier with a win at Martinsville, but though he didn’t need to perform that well to move forward, he still ran a strong race and would up second to winner Daniel Suarez.

“The best way to win the championship is to win the race. You’re going to have to go down there and be aggressive to win the race, but be really smart,” Sauter said of his championship hopes after the race. “You’re going to have to be fast, especially when you look at the guys competing for it. I truly believe the champion will win the race.

“It would be a feather in my cap personally, but it would be really big for GMS Racing as an organization, only in their third full time season. It would be really cool for my family, too. So many generations of racing, not just in NASCAR, and to be able to win a championship would be really special for all of the us.”

Meanwhile, Sauter’s former teammate, Matt Crafton, who won back-to-back championships in 2013 and ’14, started 10th and struggled with a truck that was loose on corner entry and tight through the middle and exit. But despite minor handling woes, the driver of the No. 88 Toyota managed to score a third-place finish, enough to lock him into the field, even if he was nervous.

“I promise you there wasn’t a lap that wasn’t tense,” Crafton said. “We drove as hard as we could from the green flag to the checkered flag. Timothy (Peters), I was proud of him. He drove, and he took the blows. He was on the outside and he was doing everything he could to get himself into the Chase. I was trying to just stay one spot behind him at all times – I knew that would put me in. We just raced hard and if we came up short, we came up short. At the end of the day, we didn’t.”

Along with Sauter and Crafton, Timothy Peters joins the Championship 4 after a race where his position on track fluctuated enough to move him all around the cut line throughout, until Byron’s engine blew. But knowing what he needed to do to lock himself into the battle for championship, Peters and crew chief Shane Huffman worked on the truck all night, allowing him to finish fifth, more than enough to move to the final round.

“This is a pretty cool moment to sit up here, myself and Christopher (Bell) and then Matt (Crafton) and Johnny (Sauter) running for a championship – to be involved with the first Chase is pretty cool,” Peters said. “This one goes to the men and women of Red Horse Racing – Shane Huffman and all the crew guys, the road guys – they work their butts off and the Lord has really blessed us for sure. We’ve been lucky a lot of times and maybe finished some races that we probably shouldn’t have. Homestead is a pretty decent track for us so I’m looking forward to going down there and seeing what we’ve got.”

Joining the trio of veterans is rookie Christopher Bell, whose season began with an airborne finish at Daytona and has resembled a bit of a roller-coaster. But the lone victory at Gateway Motorsports Park, coupled with strong enough finishes throughout the Chase, allowed him to pounce when he had the chance to capitalize with a seventh-place finish after his teammate suffered a blown motor.

“Some days it’s not your day, but today was definitely our day, that’s for sure,” Bell said after advancing to the Championship 4. “I don’t know what happened, we had such a good Tundra there at the beginning of the race and the light switch flipped off there with the restart with about 40 to go and then all of the sudden we just got ate up on the restart, a truck slid in front of us and kind of felt like that was the end of the year right there.

“The good Lord was on our side and we get to race for a championship at Homestead. I hate it for William (Byron) because obviously he was one of the trucks that was expected to go to Homestead and be the guy to beat really. It’s not pretty how we got in, but we got in and now we’re going to be a lot better than we were today.”

Logic says to bet on Johnny Sauter to have the best shot at winning the championship, especially with how strong GMS Racing has been in recent weeks. But we all know what can happen in a 200-mile race when there are 32 trucks on the track. The intensity next weekend should make for some exciting competition to close out the season.

Quick Hits:

  • The win for Daniel Suarez Friday night clinched the manufacturer’s championship for Toyota. It marks the ninth championship for Toyota in 13 years of series competition.
  • Earlier in the week, Tyler Reddick confirmed he would not be returning to Brad Keselowski Racing next season after three years with the organization. Though Reddick has not revealed his 2017 plans, speculation through the garage area puts him in the XFINITY Series puts him with the expanding Team Penske effort.
  • Fast forward to race day, and you can do the math on why Reddick won’t be returning to BKR. The organization announced Austin Cindric will join the team full-time next season. Sponsors and other details will be revealed at a later date.

Truck Rookie Report
2016 Rookie of the Year Candidates
No. 00 Cole Custer
No. 4 Christopher Bell
No. 9 William Byron
No. 18 Cody Coughlin
No. 22 Austin Wayne Self
No. 33 Grant Enfinger
No. 41 Ben Rhodes
No. 98 Rico Abreu

No. of Rookies in the Race: 17 (add Austin Cindric, Kevin Donahue, Stewart Friesen, Kaz Grala, Noah Gragson, Dylan Lupton, Matt Mills, Bryce Napier, Myatt Snider, Matt Tifft, Dominique Van Wieringen)

No. of Rookies to Finish in the Top 10: 3; Christopher Bell, finished seventh; Matt Tifft, finished eighth; Cole Custer, finished 10th

Rookie of the Race: Christopher Bell

Championship 4:
Johnny Sauter
Matt Crafton
Christopher Bell
Timothy Peters

Quoteable:

“I guess it was about time to get a little bit of luck. We had a lot of second-place finishes and this team, KBM (Kyle Busch Motorsports) works very hard. What a better way to clinch the Toyota manufacturer’s championship with this victory. I’m very proud of my team, proud of Toyota and proud to be a part of this family. Very proud to be talking to you right now.” Daniel Suarez

“We had a great truck on the long runs but on the short runs, unfortunately, we just couldn’t get going. We were just extremely loose. If that race goes green to the end I think we had it won. We were gaining on the 51 fast but I just didn’t get going on the restart like I needed to. This team has found a lot of little things that have gotten us to this point, where we are able to compete for a win week after week at different types of tracks.” Johnny Sauter, finished second

“We just raced as hard as we could all night. We just kept tuning on it and race smart. Timothy (Peters), he had nothing to lose. He was throwing Hail Marys without a doubt. We couldn’t take any chances and get ourselves thrown out. I kept an eye on him there and the 21 (Johnny Sauter) and we were racing and we finally just raced our butts off and are going to Homestead.” Matt Crafton, finished third

“A really solid run for this RIDE TV team. We struggled a little bit there at the end, but still managed to secure a top-5 finish – something we really needed. We will head to Homestead next week, and try to get that elusive win in the final race of the year.” Cameron Hayley, finished fourth

“It wasn’t too bad. A little stressful, but Shane (Huffman, crew chief) was telling me that I needed to keep the 21 (Johnny Sauter) behind me when the 9 (William Byron) and Matt (Crafton) was behind the 21. I guess he was fifth and we were third. We made a big swing at it to free it up. The first round was too tight and the last run we started off too free but there towards the end we kept getting tighter and tighter. Definitely better than a fifth-place truck for sure. I’m not complaining.” Timothy Peters, finished fifth

Up Next: The Camping World Truck Series heads to Homestead-Miami for Ford Championship weekend where the 2016 champion will be crowned in the first ever Chase. Coverage for the Ford EcoBoost 200 begins at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18 on FOX Sports 1. The race can also be heard on your local MRN affiliate or SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.

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