SPEEDWAY, Ind. — Daniel Suarez knew he had a car capable of winning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course on Sunday. In qualifying, he earned his first pole award since the middle of the 2019 season.
Suarez is also known for his road racing ability, scoring his lone Cup Series checkered flag at Sonoma Raceway in 2022. That proficiency has paid off specifically with the Next Gen car, though the No. 99 team has had its fair share of problems on road courses, enabling Suarez to get desired results.
Those issues continued on Sunday.
Through the first two stages, Suarez earned 17 points, finishing second and third in the stages. His car fired off strongly, but Michael McDowell and Chase Elliott were able to track the No. 99 car down on the long run.
Suarez eventually chased Elliott back down early into the final stage, aggressively bumping the No. 9 Chevrolet out of the way in Turn 12. But when Suarez pitted for the final time on lap 49, the front airhose got caught underneath the left front tire. The front tire changer couldn‘t pull the hose out and needed the jackman to run back around to jack up the car. The end result was a 23-second pit stop.
“I think if we come down pit road and have a nine-and-a-half second pit stop, I think Daniel wins the race,” Justin Marks, team owner of Trackhouse Racing said, following the race. “This is a game of tenths and every foot placement and how you run around the car and get in the pit box — it‘s the aggregate of so many small things that have to work perfectly at the highest pressure situation which is that last pit stop.”
When Suarez exited pit road, he was more than 10 seconds behind McDowel and six seconds in back of Elliott.
At one point Suarez was able to chop the deficit nearly in half over the final stint of the race. He ended up finishing 5.7 seconds behind McDowell in third position. It‘s his first top-five effort since the rain-shortened race at Atlanta Motor Speedway last month, and his best finish to a race that‘s gone the full distance since of the season.
Without the discombobulated pit stop, Suarez thinks he could have passed McDowell for the victory. It was a race he needed to capitalize on, as both he and the No. 34 car entered the race below the elimination line.
“I think we were going to have a good shot,” Suarez said, hypothetically. “It was going to be fun because I felt like the 9 was pretty good and he was falling off at the end of the run. The 34 was pretty good in the middle part of the run and I think I was good at the end of the run. It was going to be a good fight. Disappointed that we didn‘t get to see it.”
Travis Mack, crew chief of the No. 99 car, told Suarez to buckle down and that he was carrying the team during the 200-mile race. That motivation led to a spirited charge from the No. 99 car, which held off three-time road course winner Tyler Reddick for third position.
The No. 99 team wasn‘t perfect on Sunday and it potentially cost Suarez the race and a playoff berth. But the Mexico native is going to take the positives from the day into Watkins Glen International, where he has a trio of top-five finishes in five starts.
“I feel like we did a good job today,” Suarez said. “If I can grade ourselves today as a team from one to 10, I feel like we did a solid eight. But to win, you need nines and 10s. Today, we were an eight, so we‘ve got to get a little better next week.”
Suarez lost 23 points to the playoff bubble with McDowell‘s win. He now trails Bubba Wallace by 28 points with two races remaining in the regular season. At Indianapolis, Suarez outscored Wallace by 32 points.
Even though Suarez excels on road courses, Marks believes his driver will need to win one of the final two races of the regular season — especially with Daytona looming — to qualify for the playoffs in 2023.
“He has to win now,” Marks said. “He performed today at the highest level that I‘ve seen him perform. We had some problems on the pit stops, but his pace and commitment, his fire, was exactly why we pay him to do what he does. He was awesome today.
“It changes the landscape with the 34 winning. Now we‘ve got to go to Watkins Glen and try to win that race and if we don‘t we have to go to Daytona and try to win that race. It‘s as simple as that.”
Suarez concurs. Though he‘s in a bigger points hole leaving Indianapolis, the goals remains to win every week.
“Nothing has changed for us,” Suarez stated.
Suarez finished fifth last year at Watkins Glen, and posted his first top-10 finish at Daytona in 12 starts earlier this season.