By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
The I LOVE New York 355 at Watkins Glen International was a bright day for most of the 2017 Sunoco Rookie of the Year (ROTY) contenders in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Of the four of the ROTY contenders, only Corey LaJoie has no experience at the 2.45-mile road course.
Daniel Suarez was the best rookie, for the third week in a row, finishing third at Watkins Glen after running up front all race long in his No. 19 Stanley Tools Toyota Camry. Although strategy shuffled the field multiple times, Suarez often could be found in the thick of the fight for the lead.
The brightest moment for Suarez came in Stage 2 when he assumed the lead from 2016 Rookie of the Year Chase Elliott. He then continued to lead for the next 14 laps, winning his first stage of the season.
This was the first career top five for Suarez, and his fourth straight Top 10 finish. This allowed him to jump up to 15th in the point standings, best of his ROTY contenders. However, Suarez is on the outside, looking in for the Playoffs as he sits 129 points behind his teammate, Matt Kenseth, who currently holds the cutoff for the Playoffs.
Suarez was proud of his team’s efforts.
“It feels very good for sure. To be that close is tough. It’s a tough feeling, but I’m proud of all of these guys. I was telling my guys that I’m going to take the fuel tank out myself to see how much fuel we’ve got left and if we have half a gallon I want to feel bad to myself because I felt like I should’ve pushed little bit more. You never know if those guys were running out and I could win this thing. But, I’m just so proud of these guys. Everyone that put this program together, I’m very happy to be a small part of it.”
Erik Jones finished in 10th in the No. 77 5-hour ENERGY Extra Strength Toyota Camry after running inside the Top 15 all day long. Jones strong run is no surprise as his Furniture Row Racing teammate, Martin Truex, Jr. won the race.
Jones ran up front early, battling for the lead in Stage 1. His day as being the best rookie came to a quick end however after he missed the bus stop near the end of the stage. He recovered to be inside the top five in Stage 2, but was behind his future teammate, Suarez, the remainder of the day.
Jones explained his mistake as brake issues,
“It was okay. I had brake issues all day long and it was kind of the biggest fight for us. Just could never quite get in the corner like we needed to so kind of fought that. The car was good. I thought we had a top-10 car, maybe a top-five car had circumstances played out. I had a bad stop and got boxed in behind the 43 (Aric Almirola) so it just didn’t quite get the finish that we wanted.”
Ty Dillon finished 19th after a quiet day in the No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet SS. Dillon never ran inside the Top 10, but was solidly inside the Top 20 all day long.
The relatively uneventful day left Dillon mired deep in the field. He, like many others, experienced brake issues as well as power steering problems on the twists on turns of Watkins Glen.
Dillon thought that his team improved from where their weekend started,
“Our day definitely improved from where we started. We had some brake and power steering issues at the very start, but I was able to keep it underneath me until we could bring our GEICO Chevy in during the first stage break. By the time we got to the final stage, we had the car handling exactly how I needed it. Fuel mileage games are always tricky, but everyone has to do their part. The engineers have to do the math, I have to back down my entries and the spotters have to tell me who I’m racing in fuel-saving mode and who is packed full coming up behind me. It’s a team effort, and we all did our jobs today to get it home with fuel in the tank and a top-20 finish.”
Corey LaJoie finished 33rd, one lap down, in the No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota Camry after wrecking in the first practice session. LaJoie ran on the lead lap for much of the day, only falling a lap behind in the late stages of the race. Otherwise, it was a quiet for the BK Racing driver.
Now all of the ROTY contenders will prepare for a return to Michigan International Speedway where they look to improve from their last visit.