Prior to the 2016 NASCAR XFINITY Series season, consistency won race teams championships. This season it's abut balancing winning and a good finish, knowing when it's time to turn up the volume.
Second year XFINITY Series driver Daniel Suarez is currently in the midst of attempting to drive his way into Victory Lane. Driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, the team has found consistency and how to be fast. Over the last month the train of JGR cars has been nearly a half-second faster than the field, sweeping the first three positions in qualifying multiple times.
The Mexico native is thankful for the opportunity, but knows that consistency is the key to winning. Competing in the top 5, the team is looking to make the jump into Victory Lane.
Through 12 races, Suarez has recorded four top-5 finishes and racked up nine top 10s, while leading eight laps. The No. 19 car sat on the pole at Auto Club Speedway in March, and has started in the top 10 for each race this season.
While driving for JGR, Suarez compares his notes with 2009 XFINITY Series champion Kyle Busch and rookie teammate Erik Jones.
But Suarez knows that he can’t compare himself to them yet.
“We’re going to be there,” Suarez told Speedway Digest. “It’s just a matter of time. They have Kyle, who has a lot more racing experience than me, and Erik has more experience at the national level than me. We are going to be there for sure.”
The 24-year-old came into Pocono as the point’s leader by 14 markers over JR Motorsports’ Elliott Sadler. The No. 1 car has a victory, as opposed to Suarez, locking Sadler into the Chase. But Suarez believes if the team keeps running up front, that it’s not a matter if the team will win, rather when it will win.
“I think being patient,” Suarez said on how he can win. “I think putting some good races together has been our strength. I think we will win, but just have to be patient and stop worrying about wining because that is not helping us right now. We need to continue what we are doing and go from there.”
Joe Gibbs Racing has three full-time XFINITY Series cars, with two full-time drivers. Jones has two victories in 2016, but has seven top-10 finishes. The new Chase formant to the series revolves around winning and consistency, which the team feels they have.
Jones and Sadler are the two XFINITY Series regulars to enter Victory Lane in 2016. Suarez has a best result of second at Las Vegas, where he finished just behind Busch, who was in the midst of winning three straight races in the series.
According to several drivers, JGR is the team one must go through in order to win a race this season. The competition between the teammates is extremely high because they want to outdo the other one and cross the checkered flag first.
“I think the series is getting better, but Joe Gibbs Racing is on top and I know that my teammates have a lot of competition and the biggest competition is in house,” he said. “It’s a good company and a good organization. I’m excited to be a part of this organization and hopefully we can put something together to get a victory.”
The only races that Suarez has finished outside of the top 10 in 2016 was a 12th-place effort at Texas and at Charlotte, he got caught up in a wreck on Lap 25 when he slid into some oil that was laying on the racetrack. He came back to finish 14th at the 1.5-mile racetrack.
While completing all but one lap through the first 12 events, Suarez is consistently consistent. In order to take that next step, he feels he needs to get even more out of their racecars.
“I think everything is about being smart and knowing what we can get out of our racecar during the race,” Suarez elaborated. “When you have a third-place car, finish third. If you have a racecar that can finish third, then you’ll have a racecar that can finish second and then first.”
Last season, Suarez had 18 top-10 finishes in the 33-race schedule, with a best finish of second at Bristol in the spring, but led 54 laps. In his rookie campaign, he was also working with Eric Phillips. This year he is working with Scott Graves.
Graves is in the midst of his first year with the JGR organization. The veteran crew chief has spent the last four years as a crew chief for Roush Fenway Racing, including a championship with Chris Buescher last year. He has four wins on his resume in 80 career races as a crew chief in the XFINITY Series.
Since the crew chief swap, Suarez’ average starting position and average finishing position has both increased by over four positions. His confidence is at an all-time high, and Graves is accustomed to being in the points lead as he held that position with Buescher for 26 races in 2015.
If the Latin American driver does get a victory in the XFINTIY Series, he will become the first Hispanic driver to win a race in the series since 2007, when Juan Pablo Montoya was triumphant at Mexico City.
“I’m very lucky to be a Latin American driver and I feel proud to represent a lot of people up here in the United States,” Suarez said. “That would be really cool to do it this year and we are going to work hard to get there.”
It has been a quick rise for the Latino driver. Suarez competed in the NASCAR Mexico Series for four full-time seasons between 2011 and 2014. In those years he had a best championship result of second in 2013. Despite winning five races the following season, he finished sixth in the standings.
Suarez has raced 19 events in the Camping World Truck Series with eight top-five finishes with four second-place efforts.
On a day that Bristol was rough to most, Carl Edwards conquered the concrete en route to a dominating performance Sunday afternoon.
The No. 19 car started from pole and never looked back. Edwards was out front for a race-high 276 laps, over 130 laps more than his closest competitor. While clinching a birth in the 2016 edition of the Chase, he also posted his fourth top-five finish and seventh top 10 result. His triumph came in the defeat of his three teammates.
“There are so many different things happening out there,” Edwards said post-race. “Different guys are fast at different times. It’s a real testament to my team. They’ve been working so hard. This team is awesome. Dave [Rogers, crew chief] doesn’t quit, he can almost read my mind and tell me things exactly when I need them.”
This is Edwards’ first short-track victory as a part of Joe Gibbs Racing, but his fourth career victory at Bristol, the last one coming in this race two years ago.
After not getting off to a good start, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished in the runner-up position on Sunday. On the initial restart of the race, the No. 88 car had no power and as a result fell two laps down before he had even completed a lap.
Just passed halfway Earnhardt made his way into the top 10, where he would remain for the majority of the second part of the event. This is his third second-place finish of 2016.
“We got a lot of luck on the last several restarts,” Earnhardt said. “We didn’t have a good enough car to run in the top five today. Greg [Ives, crew chief] and the guys did a good job at getting our laps back. We had a dead battery at the start of the race. The car was about a 10th or 15th-place car.”
Kurt Busch led 41 laps on Sunday, bringing his machine home in third. It didn’t take long for the No. 41 car to get inside the top 10 after starting in 26th. He could get good restarts, but never clear Edwards. If we were to have got ahead of the No. 19 car, there is a chance that the five-time Bristol winner would have added to that number.
Rookie of the Year contender Chase Elliott finished a career-high fourth in Bristol. Right around halfway, the No. 24 car had a loose tire so crew chief Alan Gustafson called the 19-year-old in to pit, where the team would lose two laps.
“The guys brought a fast car here this weekend,” Elliott said. “I hated that we had a loose wheel, but that stuff happens. The guys did a good job having a good pit stop under green and only losing two laps. It gave us a shot to get one down and then back on the lead lap. We’re chipping away, just not close enough.”
Trevor Bayne rounded out the top five, in his first top-five finish since he won the Daytona 500 back in 2011.
Matt DiBenedetto and Clint Bowyer both finished inside of the top 10, giving them their best finish of the season.
There were 15 cautions for 102 laps at Bristol, but the most notable were the four cautions thrown for Joe Gibbs Racing drivers blowing right front tires.
It started on Lap 51, when Kyle Busch blew a tire in Turn Two, while running in third. His trouble continued on Lap 259 when he blew a second tire, this one ending his day.
The bad luck for Matt Kenseth continued on Lap 186 when he blew a tire while leading. Prior to the melted bead the No. 20 Toyota was out front for 142 laps. After fighting his way back up to third, he blew a second tire on Lap 324. The team decided to go behind the wall and fix the damage, resulting in a 36th-place finish, 40 laps down.
On Lap 410, Denny Hamlin added to the trouble-filled day when a bead melted on his machine. He remained on the lead lap and finished 20th.
Loose tires and tire failures was the theme of the 500 laps at Bristol, something that teams will need to address before returning in August.
After having an eventful morning in northern Tennessee, Denny Hamlin conquered final practice in preparation for the Food City 500 on Sunday.
Early in the session, the No. 11 Toyota posted a lap at 126.129 mph which is equivalent to just over 15 seconds on the stop watch. Hamlin was fastest in practice on Friday and will roll off the grid from the fourth position.
In the first session on Saturday morning Hamlin and Danica Patrick were involved in an incident heading into Turn One. The No. 11 car darted underneath the No. 10 machine and mistimed it, causing for both drivers to be confused.
“Man, I love Denny, but he makes a lot of mistakes behind me,” Patrick said. “I don’t know if he misjudged it or I was going slower than he thought, but I put my finger out the window and pointed him by. I had no intention to race him. I was not fast enough. I don’t know, but the guys are going to try and fix it.”
The only non-Toyota in the top five in final practice was Chase Elliott in second at 125.823 mph. The No. 24 Chevrolet posted his fastest time of the session as time expired, giving him confidence heading into his first event at the world’s fastest half-mile.
Just seconds before Elliott clocked off a hot lap, Martin Truex, Jr. had posted the second fastest time. He ended the session in third at 125.749 mph.
A duo of Joe Gibbs Racing teammates rounded out the top five. Pole-sitter, Carl Edwards was fourth quickest at 125.691 mph. Kyle Busch was fifth at 125.395 mph, after pacing the opening practice earlier on in the morning.
The fourth JGR Toyota and defending winner of this race, Matt Kenseth was 10th in the session, yet he was just over a tenth of a second off the fast lap.
The highest Richard Childress Racing car was Austin Dillon in 20th. His RCR teammate, Ryan Newman ran just over 100 laps, but only fast enough for 27th.
Sprint Cup Rookie Chris Buescher ran 104 laps, the most of the 40-car field. His hot lap was quick enough for 21st on the speed chart.
The Food City 500 is slated to begin shortly after 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, a race that has been rain delayed in each of the past two years.
Imagine being in Erik Jones shoes, 19 years old, fighting for an opportunity to compete under the Joe Gibbs Racing banner in the Sprint Cup Series. Embarking on his first full season in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, he is attempting to secure the organization’s second title in the division.
Since the age of 16, Jones has been in the Joe Gibbs Racing wing, when Kyle Busch first noticed him while racing in the Snowball Derby at 5 Flags Speedway. Months later, Jones won a Camping World Truck Series race at the Phoenix International Raceway for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
The 2016 season marks the reigning Truck Series champion’s first full-time season in the XFINITY Series. While winning the truck title in 2015, Jones also competed in 23 XFINITY races, winning two of them at Texas and Chicago.
Jones also drove the No. 20 Sprint Cup car when Matt Kenseth was suspended for wrecking Joey Logano at Martinsville last fall. The two drivers had a boiling feud that hit its climax in the fourth to last race of the season last year. It resulted in Kenseth being suspended for the next two events, putting Jones in the ride.
As Jones’ career has progressed, he understands he has solidified a ride with JGR when the time is right to move him up full-time to the Cup Series. There is no telling when that could be due to the stacked driver lineup in the Toyota camp of Busch, Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin. But he knows he will soon get a shot in a top ride.
“He was really the first guy to invest in me and my career along with Kyle Busch back in 2013,” Jones told Speedway Digest. “It’s really cool to have this kind of support especially at this point in my career. There are not a ton of guys who get to have that support. It’s something I never really thought I would have.”
For Jones, it was a dream come true to work with Busch, who is the defending Sprint Cup champion.
As crazy as it may sound, when Busch started racing in the Cup Series, Jones was only seven years old. He is now following in the same footsteps as his mentor.
“That was really special,” Jones said of working with Busch. “He was always a guy that I kind of looked up to and was a fan of. I learned a lot, and to have a guy like Kyle take me under his wing and really get me into this sport and give me my first opportunity was definitely special.”
The future Cup Series driver for the Gibbs organization has aligned himself with some of the sport’s top stars. He is constantly picking the brains of the current drivers at JGR about what to do in certain situations on the racetrack. He has been able to build a relationship and friendship with all of his teammates, including Daniel Suarez on the XFINITY Series side.
Jones is not afraid to go up to some of his fellow teammates and ask for advice. He feels he can learn from any of the drivers because they are all different, but in his opinion all very good and have a wealth of experience.
“They just have the wealth of knowledge for everywhere and each one of them has their own little thing that they are good at,” he said. “I’ve been trying to take all of those guys and get out of them what they are really good at.”
Though many of his peers and people within the garage believe that Jones is the next big thing, he still wants to learn. Jeff Gordon stated last spring in Texas that he had never seen a talent such as the then 18-year-old.
As of now, Jones is not scheduled to run any Cup Series or Truck Series races this season as he is one of the favorites for the XFINITY Series title in the new Chase-style format. While only running 33 races compared to the 49 he ran among the top three series in 2015, he believes that he will have enough track time to keep him busy, at least for this season.
Jones believes that the Chase will test his team as well as prepare him for the Cup Series whenever the time comes to move to the NASCAR’s top level.
At Homestead in 2015, all Jones needed to do was finish 15th to win the Truck Series title. He won three times and posted 20 top-10 finishes. A part of the change to the lower two divisions in NASCAR came partially because of the way he dominated the Truck Series. The Chase ensures that four drivers will be in title contention come Homestead.
“It just gives you a little insight on what the Cup Series is like and how that playoff format is going to be,” Jones said. “I’m excited to see actually really what the intensity level is going to be like in the XFINITY Series. We see in the Cup Series how intense it gets in the last few rounds. I’m interested to see what it’s going to be like down here.”
Many drivers from Richard Childress Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and JR Motorsports believe that the No. 20 team will be the car to beat when it gets into the latter months of the season. In 31 career XFINITY Series races, Jones has 16 top fives and 24 top 10s, which is over 75 percent of the time, in addition to leading 309 laps.
Gibbs has seen this before. Back in 2008, Joey Logano was supposed to be the “best thing since sliced bread” and won in his second career race in the XFINITY Series. He made the jump to the Cup Series at 18 years old, a mistake that the Super Bowl champion car owner doesn’t want to make again, although he did predict that Logano would do well once he moved on from JGR.
“He’s going to blossom into one of the best,” Gibbs said to Sporting News back in 2012. “We didn’t want to lose him, but it’s just the way it will work out.”
Keeping Jones in the XFINITY Series might exactly be what the team needs. Though still competitive, Kenseth, 44, is toward the end of his career and in the midst of his 17th full-time season in the Cup Series. His first full year was just one year later than Tony Stewart, who is retiring at the end of this year.
Said Jones: “I think two years in the XFINITY Series would be good. If we did move up next year I think I would be ready, I think I can do it. More time in the XFINITY Series never really hurts.”
If Jones is in the XFINITY Series for two years he could become the division’s first back-to-back champion since Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in 2011 and 2012. But with the Chase format, the team must get to Homestead before focusing fully on a championship.
Jones knows that there will be a seat available at some point in the Cup Series under the Toyota banner. Until then he is caught playing the waiting game until the right opportunity arises.
“I think there is always that worry ‘am I ready?” Jones explained. “I think every driver worries about that. Looking back at what we did in the Cup Series last year – at least in qualifying and even in the race – we were consistently toward the top 10. I feel like I could have the speed. It would just be a matter of figuring out how to put myself in a position throughout those races to be in a better spot toward the end.”
Furniture Row Racing has openly discussed the possibility of expanding to a second car in 2017. After making the switch from Chevrolet to Toyota, the organization has created a close alliance with JGR. If all goes according to plan, it will likely be Jones’ new home, similar to Ryan Blaney’s deal with the Wood Brothers and Team Penske.