NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Daniel Suarez’s Top 15 Paces Underdogs at Charlotte ROVAL

Top Dog: Daniel Suarez

Daniel Suarez got his start in karts in his home country of Mexico, running several races on the road course layouts, so it’s easy to expect he’d excel on road courses in NASCAR too. Karting is a different animal compared to stock cars, but it teaches drivers a lot about handling, feel and the skills needed for success. In his time at Joe Gibbs Racing between 2017 and 2018, Suarez picked up two top fives in five road course starts.

2021 has not met the expectations Suarez and Trackhouse Racing Team likely established at the beginning of the year for road courses, though. In six road course races this season prior to the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, he finished 31st or worst in four of them. Suarez brought home a 12th at Sonoma Raceway and a 16th at the Daytona International Speedway road course. Until Sunday’s (Oct. 10) Bank of America ROVAL 400, that is, when he finished 13th, though his overall race reflects an even better performance.

After charging through the field in stage one from his 25th-place starting spot, Suarez entered the top 10 in stage two. The No. 99 CommScope Chevrolet had great pace, running top five lap times at points, and even getting into the top five during the stage. Suarez was consistently battling champions and winners of the sport, making his variegated CommScope Chevrolet a force to be reckoned with. Like every team on the track, Suarez and crew chief Travis Mack tried different strategies out, shaking their position up.

Despite running solidly inside the top 10 in the final stage, late yellows and varying strategies jumbled the field up quite a bit. A lap 88 pit stop shuffled the field even more, and the common chaos that late-race ROVAL restarts bring cost Suarez in the end. A 13th-place finish is not the result the team wanted, but it is nothing for Suarez to hang his head about.

The No. 99 team continues to try and find consistent footing after roller coaster stints during the season. As of late, the newly founded team has found a little more consistency from its summer slump, earning five top 20 finishes in the past seven races. Finishing races and avoiding mid-race mistakes will continue to be a focus for this team as it seeks to improve for the Next Gen era.

Other Dogs

It has been quite the week for Bubba Wallace. After breaking through for his first career win in a rain-shortened Talladega Superspeedway race, Wallace has enjoyed the celebration and congratulations all week. It included him celebrating his 28th birthday on Friday, and some special features over the course of the week. Despite all of this, Wallace has to keep the intensity up and get back to the grind of the remaining Cup schedule.

Wallace’s struggles on road courses have not been invisible since his first full-time season in 2018.  The driver has improved his performance on the lefts and rights this season, but he still has work to do. Overall, it was a mediocre day for Wallace and the No. 23 DoorDash team. NASCAR’s newest winner struggled to run in the top half of the field for most of the race. Strategy and handling woes could be attributed to some of the struggles, but Wallace continued to work hard to gain positions.

After taking advantage of other drivers’ issues on late race restarts, Wallace found himself in the top 15 and recorded a 14th-place finish. That can be allocated to the improvements made by Wallace and 23XI. The team had had strong runs at times during the season but struggled mightily with finishing races. On Sunday, Wallace and company took lemons and made lemonade out of them with a run that could have easily gotten them discouraged.

Joining Suarez and Wallace in the top 20 was Michael McDowell. Behind his superspeedway prowess, road courses have proven to be a strong track type in the past for McDowell. He has earned two of his top 10s on the road courses this season, giving him some much needed confidence for the ROVAL. He didn’t get a top 10, but a 16th-place result was something this team needed.

McDowell quickly got his No. 34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford into the top 10 in the first stage, an area he’d get familiar with throughout the race. After ending the first stage in the ninth position, McDowell spent the majority of stage two in the top 10 before crew chief Drew Blickensderfer called him to pit road for strategy. The Phoenix, Ariz. native spent most of the final stage working through the field after an extended stop for left front fender damage. McDowell made a late-race stop under yellow for a chance to be more aggressive. In the end, McDowell gained a few more spots to just miss out on a top 15. Incredibly, the result was his best showing since a 16th at Nashville Superspeedway in July.

Right behind McDowell was Erik Jones. Jones fought much adversity throughout the race, having to make multiple extended for repairs from typical fender-rubbing throughout the race. To add to that, he had a penalty for too many crew members over the wall mid-race. However, Jones continued to fight through it, showing impressive speed at times and running inside the top 15 several times. Jones recorded a 17th-place result as the Richard Petty Motorsports team continues to find more speed late in the year. It’s his third finish of 17th or better in the past four races, which included two top 10s.

One of the biggest “what could have been” scenarios from the race was AJ Allmendinger, who won the last Cup race on a road course at the Indianapolis Grand Prix in August. Momentum was Allmendinger’s favor after he won his third straight ROVAL race in the NASCAR Xfinity Series the day prior.

Things looked promising early for Allmendinger, who roared into the top 10 in stage one. Ironically, Allmendinger battled for the stage two win with a driver who was seeking his third straight ROVAL win in the Cup Series: Chase Elliott. Elliott got the best of Allmendinger, sliding the No. 16 back one spot. Still, the speed and experience was there for Allmendinger to win. Unfortunately, his day ended on lap 58 due to an engine failure, relegating Allmendinger to a 38th-place finish. The race was Kaulig Racing’s last scheduled Cup start of 2021, but the team will field at least two cars in 2022 with Justin Haley running full-time, and Allmendinger currently planning on a part-time schedule. This will be an exciting team to watch in the future.

Playoff Underdog Watch

Just like McDowell’s Cup playoff run, Jeremy Clements’ title hopes came to an end with a first round exit. Clements finished 12th in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race (Oct. 9), which was not enough to advance considering he was in a must-win situation. It was a solid race overall for the single-car, family-owned team, but solid wasn’t going to cut it this week. Still, the fact that Clements pointed his way into the playoffs in contrast to his 2017 bid based on a win is impressive and should boost Clements’s confidence for the future.

Small Team Scheme of the Week

October serves as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In recognition of that, the honorary pink colors were sported all around the track, from pit wall, to paint schemes and even the Cup drivers running pink window nets. One car that was arrayed in support was that of Justin Haley’s No. 77 Bon Secours/Swamp Rabbits Chevrolet. The car was covered in pink and displayed the names of 27 women who have battled breast cancer. Nicely done, Spire Motorsports!

What to Expect Next

As the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series continues to sit idle until its race at Martinsville Speedway, both the NASCAR Cup Series and Xfinity series head to the Lone Star State for a showdown at Texas Motor Speedway.

The Cup Series did not run a spring points race at TMS this season, as the annual All-Star Race was held at the 1.5-mile track. McDowell’s Daytona 500 win locked him into the race, where he earned a solid 12th-place result. On the other hand, the NASCAR Xfinity Series did host a points race there, where Brett Moffitt recorded an eighth-place finish.

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DoninAjax

Why does Bubba keep getting lumped with the underdogs? The car should be top 10 every event.

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