Rookie Report: Auto Club 400
By Dominic Aragon
March 26, 2017
All five Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Rookie-of-the-Year candidates were among the 39 starters in the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway Sunday.
The race was the fifth stop of 36 for the MENCS in 2017.
Below is a breakdown of each driver’s race weekend.
No. 13 Ty Dillon
Dillon started 21st in his first start at ACS in NASCAR’s premiere series.
Dillon was running 16th at the end of the race’s first stage and 18th, one lap down after the second stage.
The younger Dillon brother earned the free pass prior to the start of the race’s third stage to get back onto the lead lap..
Ty Dillon cycled to the lead during the third stage of the race under a round of green flag pit stops, leading one lap.
The driver was 18th on the final restart with two laps to go. Dillon finished on the lead lap for the fourth consecutive race in 18th.
“We really struggled with the balance in the first two stages,” Dillon said. “I was tight through the center and loose on exit. Crew chief Bootie Barker worked with different adjustments to get us where we needed to be.
“Our Chevy SS was the best it had been all day there in that last segment. We made a strategy call and stretched our gas mileage to try and make it with only one green-flag stop to end the race while the leaders would need another, but late-race cautions kept that from working.
“We battled hard and, despite handling issues, it was a good end to the day.”
Dillon will enter next weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway 23rd in driver’s standings, unofficially 27 points behind a Chase-eligible position. Trevor Bayne currently holds the final Chase-eligible position with 114 points, 16th overall.
No. 19 Daniel Suarez
Suarez started 10th, his best career starting position in his five career MENCS races.
The highest qualifying rookie of the race finished stage one in 15th and the second stage in 19th, one lap down.
Suarez earned the free pass to get back onto the lead lap after a Matt Kenseth crash, the fifth caution of the race, during the third stage of the race.
Suarez restarted 16th with two laps to go.
Suarez eventually finished seventh, his second career top-10 finish in the MENCS and second consecutive top-10 result.
“I think the result is very good,” Suarez said. “That’s exactly what we are here for, but we have to keep working the race in general. I feel like we were not great, we were just okay, and then in the last couple of rounds in the last couple adjustments the car was much, much better.
“I wish it was like that the whole race and if it was going to be like, we were going to be running in the top 10 like we finished the entire race. We have to keep working. I know that there is room to improve it still, but for now we’ll take the top 10.”
Suarez gained one position in driver standings and now sits 19th overall. He is 12 points behind the Chase cutline.
No. 23 Gray Gaulding
Gaulding was the lowest starting rookie in the Auto Club 400. As the only rookie to not post a qualifying time Friday, he started 39th, last.
The 19-year-old driver was scored 34th, two laps down after the first stage and 34th, four laps down after the second stage.
Gaulding was 36th, six laps down with 21 laps to go when a mechanical failure caused him to get in the Turn 1 wall.
Gaulding dropped out of the race, finishing 37th. It is the third race in four starts this season he has not been running at the finish.
“Something broke and there was no saving it,” Gaulding said on Twitter. “I’m alright though.”
Gaulding sits 39th in points heading into next week’s race at Martinsville.
No. 77 Erik Jones
Jones qualified 14th for his first MENCS race at Auto Club.
Jones, who was the fastest driver in second practice on Saturday, finished the first stage eighth and the second stage fifth, earning an additional nine points to his race total. He was the only rookie running on the lead lap at the conclusion of the second stage.
Jones restarted seventh at the beginning of the third stage.
A penalty for an uncontrolled tire during pit stops with eight laps to go forced Jones to restart at the tail-end of the lead lap. Jones restarted 21st with five laps to go.
On the final restart, Jones restarted 14th with two laps to go. He finished 12th.
“We were fast,” Jones said. “We just don’t complete the races that well, so we have to go to work and get a little bit better and figure out how we ran all day.”
Jones moved into 15th in driver’s points, the lone rookie in a Chase-eligible position leaving Auto Club. He is seven points above the Chase cutline.
No. 83 Corey LaJoie
LaJoie started 30th, the highest starting position of his MENCS career in seven races.
LaJoie was running 32nd, one lap down, at the conclusion of the first stage and two laps down in 31st after the second stage.
LaJoie spun with nine laps to go while running 30th, two laps down, bringing out the race’s sixth caution.
The second-generation NASCAR driver ran ass high as 13th, ultimately finishing 30th. It was his best finish since a 24th in the Daytona 500.
LaJoie gained two positions in driver’s standings and sits 35th after Auto Club. He is 89 points behind the Chase cutline.
ROOKIE FINISHES AT AUTO CLUB, RACE 5/36
7) Daniel Suarez
12) Erik Jones
18) Ty Dillon
30) Corey LaJoie (-2 LAPS)
37) Gray Gaulding (OUT)
UNOFFICIAL POINTS POSITION AFTER AUTO CLUB, POINTS DEFICIT TO CHASE CUTLINE
15) Erik Jones (+7)
19) Daniel Suarez (-12)
23) Ty Dillon (-27)
35) Corey LaJoie (-89)
39) Gray Gaulding (-108) TOP FINISHING ROOKIES BY TRACK:
1) Daytona; Corey LaJoie (24th)
2) Atlanta; Erik Jones (14th)
3) Las Vegas; Erik Jones (15th)
4) Phoenix; Daniel Suarez (7th)
5) Auto Club; Daniel Suarez (7th)
IMAGES: NASCAR Media Group Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Daniel Courson/The Racing Experts