It took 22 races, but rookie Daniel Suarez finally did two things he hadn’t accomplished to-date in his Cup career.
Suarez posted his best day yet as a Cup driver, finishing third in the I Love New York 355 at Watkins Glen International after also claiming his first stage win.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was unable to keep up with his teammate Matt Kenseth and race-winner Martin Truex Jr. in the closing laps, a result of Suarez trying to save fuel in the closing laps around the road course.
“I’m very happy for the third-place (finish) and for the result and for the overall race,” Suarez said. “But (it’s) very hard to finish third when you can see the leader right there and you are just cruising to try to save fuel because you don’t really know how much fuel you have left.”
Suarez wound up finishing 5.1 seconds behind Truex.
The 25-year-old driver did get a chance to reign supreme over Truex early in the race. Suarez successfully fended off Truex at the end of Stage 2, throwing a block on the No. 78 in Turn 6 before beating him to the finish line.
Suarez kept Truex from adding to his series-leading stage win total of 14.
“I knew that (Truex) was coming fast,” Suarez said. “I’m not sure if he had fresher tires or something, but he was coming very fast, and I was just trying to hold him off a little bit, and luckily we were able to do it.
“I knew that we’d raced each other very clean, and he’s been super strong the entire year, and I knew that he wasn’t going to do anything crazy and I wasn’t going to do anything crazy, either.
“It was just a little hard racing right there at the end, but congratulations to the 78. He did a really good job, and overall, like I said, it was a good, solid day for us. We just have to keep it up, and hopefully we can catch a break before the playoffs to make it.”
Suarez led the final 14 laps of the second stage, his most laps led this season. He led 11 laps at Daytona in July and one last week at Pocono.
The rookie who succeeded Carl Edwards now has four straight top-10 finishes. The stretch began with a sixth-place finish at New Hampshire, was seventh at both Indianapolis and Pocono and third Sunday in upstate New York.
“I think I mentioned in the beginning of the year that I was so looking forward to the second half of the year,” Suarez said. “I knew that the second half of the year we were going to be more competitive, and our second time at all these racetracks we were going to have enough book and we were going to go to those racetracks already knowing what to expect.
“You know, all the hard work from my team and from everyone in the 19 group and from Joe Gibbs Racing, TRD, Toyota, it’s paying off. In the beginning of the year, we were not like that. I wasn’t the same driver, either, and now I feel like we are moving in the right direction. We have speed pretty much every weekend now where we are running in the top 10. I don’t think it’s a surprise anymore to run in the top 10.”