SPARTA, Ky. — After winning the pole Friday, Daniel Suarez, who has yet to score a Cup victory, noted that the past two races had first-time winners.
“Why not have a third one?” Suarez asked, clearly meaning him.
But missed opportunities and misfortune Saturday night kept his winless streak alive and also left him still outside a playoff spot on a night when he could have scored more points. He wasn’t the only one who lost a chance at a better result. A restart cost William Byron. A pit road penalty stymied Denny Hamlin.
It was Suarez, though, who was hurt the most Saturday night.
He entered the race three points out of a playoff spot. As the pole-sitter, he was in position to score stage points, while Ryan Newman, who held the final playoff spot entering the night, started at the rear because his car failed inspection.
Everything was there for Suarez to take advantage of Newman’s situation.
A pit call backfired and Suarez finished the first stage 14th, failing to score any stage points, after leading the first 49 laps. It marked the first time since Auto Club Speedway in March that the pole-sitter did not score points in the opening stage.
“I feel like the first stage, I feel like the call that we made on four tires instead of two tires, that kind of messed us up a little bit,” Suarez told NBC Sports.
Crew chief Billy Scott had Suarez stop for four tires under caution at Lap 49. Problem was that two cars, including winner Kurt Busch, took no tires and 10 cars took two tires. Suarez was the first car with four tires, but he restarted 13th.
“Really thought that we had run far enough at that point … that it would be the first of our two opportunities to put lefts on (for a four-tire change),” Scott told NBC Sports. “From those lefts there, you only needed them one more time.
“That was kind of the root of it. In hindsight, there were a lot of cars that took two tires and that kind of hurt. Restarting 13th and on the bottom (lane), and that was a big difference, too. Probably the only thing that is regretful with that is that we ended up not getting any stage points. Where we’re at in points, that’s important. Not getting stage points out of that deal definitely hurt and something we question for sure. After that, what really got us was our flat tire.”
That happened in the second stage. Suarez pitted on Lap 107 and was penalized for speeding. He fell two laps down and went three laps down on Lap 143.
With the pit call in the first stage and the flat tire in the second stage, Suarez scored no stage points.
That he got back on the lead lap and finished eighth consoled Suarez only so much.
“Bad decisions, little bad luck but were able to recover for a decent finish,” Suarez said of his night.
“We showed that we had the speed, so we just have to keep that one up.”
Problem was that Newman finished ninth. Suarez scored 29 points Saturday. Newman had 28.
Newman fell out of the final playoff spot. Erik Jones moved into that spot with his third-place finish, scoring 43 points. Suarez trails Jones by four points for that spot.
Byron is in a more comfortable position than Suarez in the season standings. Byron is 12th in the standings and is 46 points ahead of Newman, who is in the first spot outside a playoff position.
Byron appeared headed for a strong run before he was penalized on Lap 184 for jumping the restart. He restarted second to Clint Bowyer, who brought the cars through the restart zone slowly.
“(Bowyer) dragged it way down in the restart zone,” Byron told NBC Sports, “and I still, obviously kind of peddled it a little bit and got in front of him and gave it back and went with him after that and still got called for it. I don’t know. I felt like I gave enough back.”
Asked if he would talk to NASCAR about it, Byron said: “I understand the rule. I don’t think it was necessary to call it. It wasn’t like I killed him into Turn 1. I don’t know.”
Byron fell a lap down and finished 18th.
Hamlin also was frustrated despite finishing fifth. A penalty for an uncontrolled tire on Lap 147 derailed Hamlin’s hopes of winning and scoring more playoff points.
Unlike Suarez and Byron, who are winless this year, Hamlin has two victories and is bound for the playoffs.
Still, the penalty stung.
“That kind of sealed our fate to try to win,” Hamlin said. “Certainly we rallied. The reason we had a top-five finish was because we had a fast car and had some good restarts at the end and was able to get back up there.
“I’m ecstatic that we have race-winning speed every single week, but certainly we’ve got to tighten up the execution a little bit. Once we do that, we’ll be pretty good.”
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