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July 10, 2023

Analysis: Daniel Suárez, Michael McDowell come away with positive points, playoff positioning after Atlanta

An intense Quaker State 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway brought unique challenges to the NASCAR Cup Series field. A waning regular-season slate — and with it, fewer opportunities for a winless driver to clinch a postseason spot — only heightened tensions.

Of course, weather played a factor, too, as Sunday’s contest was abbreviated by 75 laps, with William Byron triumphing in the rain-shortened contest to claim his series-leading fourth win of 2023.

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That didn’t stop drivers yet without a playoff-clinching win from taking advantage, though, and in the case of Trackhouse Racing’s Daniel Suárez and Front Row Motorsports’ Michael McDowell, both will gladly take their top-five finishes as much-needed compensation. After Atlanta, Suárez and McDowell rank 15th and 16th, respectively, in the playoff standings and are each three points inside the 16-driver playoff elimination line heading into next Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, USA, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App).

“It is what it is,” said Suárez, who finished runner-up. “I felt like the 99 really needed a day like this. We’ve been very fast, pretty much wherever we go. We have made mistakes. I have made mistakes … We haven’t been able to get the result that we deserve, that my team deserves, that my mechanics deserve, my people deserve, and we really needed to get, I think, a little bit of air, and I think that that’s what happened today. We were able to have a good solid day, and we’ll take it, and we can build from this.”

“I think that we’re doing a good job of getting ourselves a shot at pointing our way into it,” McDowell, who finished fourth, said. “But it only takes one or two more guys winning to feel not so good about it, so I think we’ve got to keep the same mindset of trying to win a race, and that’s what we were trying to do tonight. Be aggressive, stay out there, knowing the rain is gonna come, and see if we couldn’t get another win. Unfortunately couldn’t get it done, but I think that’s a good points night, and we had a fast car, and if we keep making the most out of weekends, we could point our way in.

“But I also feel like we were running good enough where we could win a race, too, in the next eight weeks, so yeah. Everything is going good now and gotta keep the momentum going, keep the intensity going and fight hard. It’s not gonna be easy. It’s gonna be tight, it’s gonna be within three, four points, so you can’t leave anything on the table and just gotta keep executing.”

WATCH: McDowell talks gutsy finish at Atlanta

With both drivers starting outside the top 20 to begin the race, Suárez and McDowell needed to play their cards right. After the conclusion of Stage 2 and with rain impending, both teams opted to stay out, while others stopped for fuel. Such a gamble looked like an instant payoff for McDowell as he — in addition to AJ Allmendinger, another driver looking for playoff positioning — led the field to green with 96 laps to go. And while Suárez battled with Allmendinger and a surging Byron, the No. 99 couldn’t find enough of a late-race jolt once the race was called on Lap 185.

“I needed a bigger push from behind. I was trying to back it up, but with William and his experience, he was backing out with me, and they were side-by-side behind me, so it wasn’t easy to get those runs because they were stalling each other,” Suárez said. “So, if they were maybe side-by-side one row behind them, then I had one single car behind me, I was going to be able to build a run, but the way it was, it was a little bit difficult.”

McDowell’s fourth-place finish didn’t come without bruises from earlier in the race. After the end of Stage 1, McDowell made contact with Martin Truex Jr on pit road, causing the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing driver to spin and incurring heavy right-front damage to the No. 34. Despite the damage, McDowell’s car still had the speed, and by pulling the right pit-stop strings, McDowell was able to tally his fourth top-1o finish in his last five races.

The challenge to achieve that finish, however, wasn’t easy.

“I don’t know if you guys ever raced with AJ and Daniel, but it’s intense no matter what, but then you put three guys that haven’t won a race and need to get into the playoffs, and you know rain’s coming, it was stinkin’ intense …” McDowell said. “Man, I just wish I could’ve held them off. Yeah, we all know what we’re fighting for, right, and we were really close to it, so, you know, it’s a good day, and at the same time, you’re bummed that you didn’t get to Victory Lane, but I think we executed well, and Travis (Peterson, crew chief) did a great job of strategy and putting us in position to have a shot at winning the race, and we just gotta keep doing that every week.”

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Continuing the consistent grind and amassing points where needed will be key for both Suárez and McDowell, and while the pair might have wished to find Victory Lane and silence all postseason-hunting talk for good, the pair will take any victories they can get, even if they only come in points.

The points compensation — not to mention positive momentum moving forward with seven regular-season races to go — will suffice for now.

“Yeah, it’s definitely important,” Suárez said. “I’m not paying a lot of attention to that. I’m just racing one race at a time, and I’ll see how things play out.”