CONCORD, N.C. — A perspiring Erik Jones speculated Sunday night’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway was the first night he had ever finished his entire bag of water during a race.
Daniel Suarez said he wasn’t sure if he was going to finish the entire 600-mile event that extended to the wee hours of Monday morning.
Six hundred miles of racing — along with a 100-minute rain delay — is no joke.
Despite the grueling distance that could daunt even the most seasoned drivers, Monster Energy Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders Jones and Suarez performed more like veterans in Sunday’s event, finishing seventh and 11th, respectively, and running consistently in the top 10.
“I tried to be aggressive and I tried to stay in the front,” Suarez said after the race. “… I feel like the guys did an amazing job of working on the car, trying to tune up the car and we had a top-10 car and we ended up one spot short.”
For Jones, the seventh-place result was a refreshing change from his four-race string of wrecks and cut tires that led to four disappointing finishes at Bristol, Richmond, Talladega and Kansas.
“This was what we needed after a bad couple races,” Jones said. “So, nice to just get a good, solid finish, good top-10. I think our car was a little bit better than that — we just got that hole in the nose early and never really got the balance the same. But the 5-hour Energy Camry was good and it was just nice to have a good night.”
The driver who turns 21 on Tuesday had a strong car all weekend, qualifying fifth, leading opening practice and placing in the top five in the other two practice sessions. An early incident saddled him with a hole in the nose of his No. 77 Furniture Row Racing Toyota that caused him to pit for repairs and left him to come from the back of the field.
It was a situation where patience was, indeed, key.
“I was impressed to see the job Erik did being patient all night — it’s a long race,” crew chief Chris Gayle told NASCAR.com after the race. “He had to go to the back with damage to the nose and he was still patient getting back up through the field.
“… He’s been (patient) all year long — he just hasn’t been rewarded with the finish until tonight from doing it. I think that the more you’re rewarded with the finish, the more it enforces that you need to be that way.”
Jones was also prepared; the rookie had a bit of help pre-race in the form of his teammate and 2016 Coca-Cola 600 winner Martin Truex Jr., who led a race-high 233 laps before finishing third.
“It definitely helps when you come into a track where our teammate was so fast last year,” Jones said. “Obviously we leaned a lot on his setup, I leaned a lot on him and his data and everything else in between. He had another fast car tonight and I think he had a car that could have won the race.
“At the start of the race I thought we had one that could have contended until we got the hole in the nose. Overall, nice to have somebody that’s so fast — not only here, but every week — to lean on. I try to get information from him when I can to try to get faster and more consistent finishes up front.”
Jones wasn’t the only rookie with teammates up front at Charlotte; Suarez also ran with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates toward the front of the pack. After early season struggles for the typically dominant JGR group, the Toyota power seemed to flourish Sunday night with Kyle Busch finishing second, Matt Kenseth fourth and Denny Hamlin fifth.
But while appearing pleased with the effort, Suarez also didn’t seem fully content with his 11th-place result.
“I feel like it was good, we just have to make better decisions and adjustments a couple of times,” the 25-year-old driver said. “We lost some spots on pit road and track position was huge and I don’t feel like that helped us a lot.
“But we had a top-eight, top-10 car and we ended up very close to that.”