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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Sweet Music for Daniel Suarez, NASCAR Underdogs in Nashville

The Setting

The excitement, energy and enthusiasm of the NASCAR Cup Series heading to Nashville Superspeedway was felt all week across NASCAR Nation. For the first time in 37 years, the Cup tour was stopping in Music City to race the 1.33-mile Nashville Superspeedway on Father’s Day. (I’d like to wish all the Dads out there a Happy Father’s Day as well!)

Nashville has the size of an intermediate track but drives like a short track, giving fans some thrilling action in all three races. For the underdogs, it was a chance to either continue the momentum or turn their seasons around in a race that held both practice and qualifying. The benefits of practice and qualifying were on display in the Cup Series.

Erik Jones led the way in Sunday morning’s qualifying session. The driver of the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet earned a top 10 starting spot, qualifying in the ninth position. Anthony Alfredo followed suit in the 18th starting position, with Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series winner Ryan Preece also earning a top 20 starting spot in 20th. The momentum for many teams looking to stay inside the top 20 carried throughout the weekend.

Top Dog

It is nearly 1,235 miles from Nashville, Tenn. to Daniel Suarez’s hometown of Monterrey, Mexico. However, it was a home race for Trackhouse Racing’s team owner, Justin Marks, who lives near Nashville. Marks is a unique owner in the garage, with high-profile aspirations for himself and his race team. Look no farther than the preseason addition of team co-owner and world famous Pitbull. Those goals combined with the owners’ passion have been great attributes in the success that the newly formed Trackhouse is finding.

Marks recently told reporters in a media session at Nashville Superspeedway that he would like to relocate the team to the main strip of Nashville.

“Our goal is to have a race shop here one day and to be kind of the professional racing sports here in Nashville,” Marks told the media. “What we’re trying to do is to bring something different and bring something unique to tell a story, to transcend the sport; take NASCAR and use the platform but to tell a bigger story. To see things come together like they have this year have been great.”

The aspirations of Trackhouse have a bright future. Suarez has shown flashes of a career-revived driver after losing rides at powerhouse teams Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing. Suarez’s desire to thrive has been spotlighted many times, and it showed again at Nashville Superspeedway for the Ally 400. After qualifying in 22nd, Suarez was a mainstay in the top 20 throughout the race. Some strategy near the end of Stage one allowed him to take the stage checkered in fourth, gaining seven valuable points. Despite being back on the same strategy in stage two, he still rounded it out in 15th.

There have been many races this year where Suarez capitalizes on solid days and turns them into great days, with a few exceptions. Nashville was one of those runs, as Suarez drove his No. 99 Tootsies Chevrolet into the top 10 late in the race. With 10 laps to go, Suarez moved up to ninth but didn’t stop there. He was able to muscle his way past two more drivers to earn a seventh-place result, his third top 10 result of the year and best finish since Bristol Dirt on March 29. To compare to fellow new team 23XI Racing, driver Bubba Wallace has not yet recorded a top 10.

“What a great way to end the week in Nashville for all the Tootsie’s folks and everyone who came out to support us” Suarez said following the race. “We had a lot of fun and had a good run today. We got a little bit tight at the end and that kept us from finishing even better. (Crew Chief) Travis (Mack) made some great calls today and the pit crew was excellent. This is another step for us. We will keep working hard and getting better and better. We won’t be satisfied until we are standing in victory lane.”

It also vaulted Suarez’s No. 99 team into 21st in the points standings, 12 points back of 20th. A top 20 points finish would be incredible for this team, although we know Trackhouse is motivated to win every week. An initial look at Suarez’s results may not bat an eye. But for a new team with limited resources and a driver who needed a rejuvenation of his career, this team is checking boxes one by one.

“It was good. The car was good enough to finish right there in the top-10. I don’t know what it was, but in the last couple of runs, we lost some grip in the front. I don’t know if it was the race track, or what; but the guys did a very good job of making adjustments. The car was fast; we showed that a couple of times. We’ve just got to continue.”

Suarez also was driving with a heavy heart this weekend, as his former K&N Pro East Series crew chief Skip Eyler passed away.

“He was a very hard-working person” Suarez told NBC Sports. “Good family person. I just make friends through my career and he was one of them. We stayed in touch the entire time. … He was probably one of my biggest fans.

“Early in the year, he got cancer. He got surgery and everything went good. He had COVID. He went through COVID. He made it through and a few weeks ago, he got the return of the cancer.”

Diving Deeper

Make it four straight top-20 results for Corey LaJoie. The driver who goes by the motto “stacking pennies” has been adding quite the amount to his tower lately after another solid run. LaJoie’s name did not appear in the mix like many of his fellow underdogs, but once again, he flexed his muscles in the end and earned a 15th-place finish following Chase Elliott’s disqualification.

Spire Motorsports is coming off a week in which it announced it will sell two of its three charters to Kaulig Racing, which will be joining the Cup ranks next season. It caused some to ponder Spire and LaJoie’s future, but the team reassured that they will be back with all focus being directed to the No. 7 program, a big benefit with the arrival of the NextGen car.

It had been a fairly difficult stretch for Daytona 500 champion Michael McDowell, excluding a seventh at Circuit of the Americas. McDowell had finished 20th or worse in four of the last six races. His run at Nashville was a step in regaining his footing with a 16th-place showing. McDowell was either just inside or just outside the top 20 most of the race. But despite sustaining damage in an incident with just under 90 laps remaining, McDowell was able to recover and earn his first top 20 since the top 10 at COTA.

Rookie Anthony Alfredo also had a positive weekend in Music City. Alfredo also endured damage in the same incident as teammate McDowell, as well as a tire rub earlier on. However, the rookie driver bounced back to finish 17th, also his first top 20 since an 18th at COTA. Alfredo has shown steady improvement over the year no matter the result. A gamble at Sonoma nearly earned him a top 10 two weeks ago before he was turned. He spent some time inside the top 20 at the Coca-Cola 600, as well as showing promising speed in the All-Star Open. The freshman driver could benefit from a few more similar runs in the coming weeks to boost his confidence.

There were many times throughout the race where Erik Jones looked to have top 10 speed. After starting inside the top 10, Jones’ position was a roller coaster throughout the race, with stage results of 15th and 21st. While Jones did crack the top 10 a few times, he had a similar conclusion that we have seen this year: sliding down the board. The driver of Richard Petty’s famous No. 43 held on for a 19th-place result, but the 25-year-old wanted more. However, it was also his fourth straight result inside the top 20.

“It was a tough day for the No. 43 Black Entrepreneur Initiative Camaro ZL1 1LE. We had an OK qualifying effort in the top-10″ Jones said in a statement. “We had to start in the back and we fought our way back into the top-10 early in the race, and then just kind of lost the balance from there. Tough day – it wasn’t the day we were looking for, for sure, but we stuck with it all day and got a top-20 out of it. We’ll go to Pocono (Raceway) next week. It’s a place I really like and we hope to have a couple good races.”

After three finishes in four races of 14th or better, Wallace found himself outside the front half at Nashville. The Mobile, Ala. native was able to get up to 12th in stage two when he cut a tire, causing the car to spin around and bring out the yellow. Wallace finished the race in 20th. Despite some improvements, the new team with so much hype and an energetic young driver are still ironing out the wrinkles of being a start-up as they seek their first top 10 result.

Garrett Smithley also deserves a shout out for his performance. He earned a season-high 25th-place result in a significantly underfunded Rick Ware Racing car.

Other Dogs

In the NASCAR Xfinity Series’ first race at Nashville since 2011, a couple of underdogs emerged and took center stage. In Austin Hill’s first NXS start since the fall Texas race in 2020, he brought home a top-10 effort, placing ninth in the No. 61 in partnership with MBM Motorsports and Hattori Racing Enterprises.

Jeremy Clements continued his career year, finishing 11th with his self-owned No. 51. Clements now sits in the 12th and final playoff spot in the standings after 15 races.

Will Rodgers also made a return to the series for the first time since 2019, driving the No. 26 Toyota for Sam Hunt Racing. Rodgers made good use of the opportunity, earning a 14th-place result. It was his second-best showing in five series starts.

Cup sophomore Tyler Reddick made his third start for Jordan Anderson Racing, and once again earned the team valuable owner’s points. Reddick spun across the start/finish line after contact with Daniel Hemric to finish 15th, his third such top-15 result after two top 10s in the No. 31 Chevrolet.

Alex Labbe’s consistency continued at the concrete track, bringing home the No. 36 Ripper Magoos/Fanatics Chevrolet in 17th. It is Labbe’s seventh-straight top 20 after only recording two in the first eight races.

Ryan Vargas has also improved his consistency. His 18th-place finish was a third top 20 in four races, a mark he only achieved once in his first 10 starts.

The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series also was on stage at Nashville for the first time since 2011. Parker Kligerman led the underdogs in the race, finishing 17th. Tate Fogleman followed him up in 20th, his first top 20 since Las Vegas Motor Speedway in February.

Small Team Scheme of the Week

Quin Houff and Starcom Racing earned this week’s small team scheme of the week, driving a scheme promoting the Dreamworks film Spirit Untamed, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Eiza Gonzalez.

Unfortunately, Houff’s race ended in the first turn when the team experienced a tire failure, sending Houff’s No. 00 Mane ‘n Tail Chevrolet into the wall with such force it ripped that Goodyear Eagle right off the car.

What to Expect Next

All three series head to Long Pond, Penn. for races at the Tricky Triangle, Pocono Raceway. It is the second straight season that Pocono will host a doubleheader for the Cup Series while Xfinity and Camping World Trucks will host one race apiece.

Daniel Suarez should be this week’s top underdog driver to keep an eye on. He started on the pole and finished second in the July 2018 race.

What They’re Saying

 

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John Dawg Chapman

Overlooked was a strong on track performance & decent qualifying effort from JJ Yeley. Unfortunately, it was negated by two pit road speeding penalties, (a distinction shared with Truex) & a couple of other pit penalties from the crew. I know JJ had his chance in good equipment at the start of his Cup career. But I’d love to see what he could do with it now that he’s acclimated to stock cars.

Tom B

Not one mention of Ryan Newman on TV. His Mister Peanut Car looked great. This really points out how many cars do not get any attention unless you crash or run up front.

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