Rookies Gaining Experience
By: Robbie Mays - @robbiemays | MRN.com on April 15, 2017 | 11:00 A.M. EST
Daniel Suarez currently leads the rookie standings. (Photo: Getty Images)
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series celebrates its first off weekend of 2017 this week, and with it comes the first opportunity for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year class to assess the first two months of their Cup Series careers.
Top rookie candidates Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and Ty Dillon have shown flashes of speed through seven races in 2017, but none of them have been able to be consistent week in and week out. The trio have combined for three top-10 finishes with Jones finding himself the highest in points at 14th with Suarez 23rd and Dillon in 24th.
Jones won the 2015 Camping World Truck Series title and was the favorite to repeat the feat in the NASCAR XFINITY Series in 2016 driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. In September, Jones was announced as the driver for the second Furniture Row Racing entry in 2017 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and was the early favorite to win Rookie of the Year honors.
Now seven races into the season with one top-10 finish to his credit, Jones finds himself highest in the series standings but second in rookie standings to Suarez.
Jones seemed to be making progress after an eighth-place finish at Phoenix Raceway last month followed by back-to-back 12th-place efforts at Auto Club Speedway and Martinsville Speedway. But after a disappointing 22nd-place finish last Sunday at Texas, the Byron, Michigan native has a bad taste in his mouth after his latest outing going into the off-week.
“There’s really nothing we can take as a positive from this race that we can apply for the next time we’re here other than the need to get better,” Jones said following the Texas race. “We tried everything we could to make the car handle better but nothing worked. It was a very frustrating day for the entire team.”
But overall, Jones is pleased with his performance and knows there’s still a lot to learn.
“The team has had a good season so far,” Jones said. “We’ve had fast cars and run up front at times. The biggest thing I look at is if we’ve gotten better every week. that was the ultimate goal starting the year with a new team. We’ve managed to do that and now we just have to keep on that track, execute better at the end of the races and start to hammer out the finishes I know we’re capable of.”
Suarez won the XFINITY Series championship last season and seemed poised to contend for the title again in 2017. That is until Carl Edwards announced he was leaving the sport in January, elevating Suarez to a team that won multiple races a year ago and was part of the championship four at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
After a tumultuous start to the season that saw Suarez finish outside the top 20 the first three races of his Cup Series career, he strung together back-to-back seventh place finishes at Phoenix Raceway and Auto Club Speedway. Things seemed to be on track for Suarez and his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team.
On Wednesday before the Martinsville race, JGR announced Suarez’s crew chief Dave Rogers was taking a personal leave of absence from the team, leaving the young rookie without a crew chief just when it seemed like he was making progress.
“It was a surprise for me,” Suarez said of Rogers’ absence. “I respect Dave’s decision to do this and to try to take care of his personal stuff. I just hope that he comes back soon to do whatever that he loves to do - being at the race track every weekend.”
Suarez’ former XFINITY Series crew chief Scott Graves, who led Suarez to the series title in 2016, was elevated to replace Rogers in time for the Martinsville race weekend.
Suarez would crash his primary car in the opening practice on Friday at Martinsville, making a difficult situation even worse. Still, he kept his head up knowing how difficult it is to learn how to get around NASCAR’s oldest track.
“Martinsville is a difficult track,” Suarez said after the incident. “It’s one of those places that you need to be patient and now with a backup, I guess we’re going to be for sure better. Hopefully we can move in the right direction.”
But the theme of Suarez’ first quarter of the season is sure to be the departure of Rogers as crew chief.
"I felt like for sure I was getting to a point with Dave where we were kind of slowly making that chemistry and communication,” Suarez said. “The good thing is I know Scott very well and he knows me very well. And actually I was expecting to race with him more than 14, 15 times in XFINITY Stuff this year so we know him very well.”
So how exactly has the season been for Suarez compared to what he thought going in?
“More competition, more aggressive, more media, more questions, more answers,” Suarez said. “Everything is more, so it’s more going on. Overall we had a couple top 10s and I don’t feel like we have raced in the whole race very well, but we have closed the race good with a car that I felt like it was capable to do that.”
Dillon is trying to become the spoiler in the Jones-Suarez stranglehold on rookie of the year standings. Driving for Germain Racing - a satellite team of his grandfather’s Richard Childress Racing team - Dillon by far had the most Cup Series experience coming into the season. But with Jones and Suarez driving Joe Gibbs Racing affiliated equipment, Dillon knew he would have to work hard and learn quickly to keep up in the battle for rookie of the year honors.
After finishing 30th at Daytona, Dillon has driven to a 19.9 average finish and is becoming a consistent 15th-20th place car every week and was the highest finishing rookie last Sunday at Texas, coming home 17th.
“It was a good day for our GEICO guys,” Dillon said after the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500. “The guys at Germain built a new chassis and a new body for Texas and it was really strong all weekend. We had speed and it definitely helps for a rookie like me to have a car that can go fast like that.”
Dillon thinks the experience of running near the front for most of the day will help going forward.
“We definitely learned a lot today by running up front with some good cars,” Dillon said. “We’re excited with how our season’s going and the way we’re building momentum and getting better each week, so this was a good confidence boost going into the off-week.”
BK Racing's Corey LaJoie and Gray Gaulding are also part of the rookie class. LaJoie has posted a 32.1 average finish in the first seven races while Gaulding started his season at Atlanta and has put together a 34.5 average finish.
Confidence is something all rookies will need over the coming weeks. After this weekend’s break, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will go to a variety of tracks over the next month, starting with visits to back-to-back short tracks at Bristol Motor Speedway and Richmond International Raceway before moving to Talladega Superspeedway at the beginning of May and on to Kansas the following week.