Rookie Report: Axalta presents the Pocono 400
By Justin Melillo
June 11, 2017
LONG POND, Pa. – The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series took their talents to the mountains of Pocono for 160 laps of intense competition in the 14th race of the season.
All five of the Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year contenders took to the Tricky Triangle to try their luck in the Axalta presents the Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway.
Here is how each driver’s race played out on Sunday afternoon.
No. 13 Ty Dillon
Ty Dillon finished 18th in the Axalta presents the Pocono 400.
Dillon took the green flag in the 27th position, and by the end of stage one, didn’t make it much further, ending up in 25th position on the lead lap.
In stage two, Dillon ran as high as 20th. The No. 13 Germain Racing Chevrolet pitted before the one lap shootout to end stage two after Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray crashed with three laps to go. He wound up finishing the stage in 24th place on the lead lap.
At one point in stage three, Dillon worked his way up to second position, hoping to mix up the standings with a differing strategy. Unfortunately, he had to pit with 25 laps to go, and cycled back to 23rd place.
Dillon then pitted again on the final caution which involved Kasey Kahne, and overshot his pit box, putting him further back in line.
On the final restart with 13 laps to go, he worked his way back inside of the top 20.
“There was so much strategy in today’s race at Pocono,” Dillon said. “In the first stage, we worked to get our No. 13 GEICO Chevy dialed in. Once we got close to what we needed, we started playing with a strategy to make up track position in the final two stages.
“It’s so important at this track, but so hard to get once the field spreads out. It worked how we needed it to, and our car really started to come around there at the end.
“I took off on that last restart and picked off a couple other cars in the short amount of time that I had. Now I’ll focus on our plan for Michigan next weekend.”
Dillon sits 22nd in the MENCS point standings, 115 points behind the playoff cutoff.
No. 19 Daniel Suarez
Daniel Suarez finished in 15th place in the Axalta presents the Pocono 400.
Suarez started the highest of all the Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year contenders in 14th place.
After an uneventful stage one, Suarez brought the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota across the line in 15th place.
In the second stage, Suarez started the run in the mid-teens, but took the lead at lap 93 when Denny Hamlin pitted from the lead. Suarez pitted the next lap after having already given up the lead to Kyle Larson on the same lap. He finished 19th at the end of the stage.
For stage three, Suarez stayed out and restarted in the top 10. He soon fell back to 14th, losing spots to drivers who pitted for tires during the stage break.
Suarez pitted under green flag conditions with 37 laps to go. After cycling through, he would find himself in 13th position.
On the final restart, Suarez battled between Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick, and took home a top-15 finish.
“It was really tough day, maybe one of the most difficult races we have had in the season, just because we didn’t have any speed,” Suarez said to The Racing Experts. “We were trying to make adjustments in the racecar, but we’re not going anywhere. We were a top-15 car and it's exactly where we end up.”
Suarez is now 19th in the MENCS point standings, 62 points behind the playoff cutoff.
No. 23 Gray Gaulding
Gray Gaulding was the lowest finishing Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year, coming home in 29th position, four laps down.
From the 33rd starting position, Gaulding ended up two laps behind the leader at the end of the first stage, crossing the line 34th place.
The No. 23 BK Racing Toyota started the second stage the same amount of laps down, and wound up finishing 32nd, three laps behind the leader.
In the final stage, Gaulding lost one more lap, but brought it home in one piece.
“We struggled in Turn 1 mostly, but Patrick Donahue and my guys did a great job all weekend,” Gaulding said to The Racing Experts. “We made some good adjustments late in the race, but it’s kind of too late, we just got too many laps down.”
Gaulding is 35th in the MENCS point standings.
No. 77 Erik Jones
Erik Jones was the highest finishing rookie at Pocono Raceway, as he scored a third-place finish, which is the best finish of his career.
Jones started the race in 15th position, and led the race early in stage one, choosing to stay out as the field short pitted mid stage.
He took the lead from pole sitter Kyle Busch, who pitted at the beginning of lap 18, and led all the way until the end of lap 35, when he relinquished the lead back to Busch. He crossed the line in 13th place at the end of the stage.
In stage two, Jones restarted second after staying out, and took the lead back the very next lap. The No. 18 of Busch took the lead back from Jones a few laps later. Jones ran in second place for the majority of the stage, and ultimately ended up in sixth, earning five stage bonus points.
Once again, Jones stayed out during the stage break and restarted second to Kyle Busch. He fell back to third behind eventual race winner Ryan Blaney and pitted with 37 laps to go.
The No. 20 Toyota cycled through to ninth place with 25 laps to go, and on the final pit stop under caution, took two tires to restart in third position with 13 laps to go.
“Just happy, happy that we finally get a finish that we deserve,” Jones said. “We ran top five most of the day and had good strategy and it worked out. The last restart played out right into our hands and got it during the third [stage] and knew we had to hold those guys off and we’d be just fine.
“It’s exciting, happy we had a fast race car. Wish we had a little bit faster one and then we could have gone up there and raced for it, but definitely a good day for us.”
Jones led 20 of the 160 laps, the most laps of his career in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. He is 17th in the MENCS point standings, 40 points behind the playoff cutoff.
No. 83 Corey LaJoie
The lowest starter of the Sunoco Rookie-of-the-year class, Corey LaJoie took the green flag in 35th place, and finished in 28th place.
He lost one lap by the end of stage one, and ended up in 32nd place. LaJoie then stayed out and took the wave around to get back on the lead lap on the stage end caution.
In the second stage, LaJoie pitted on the first lap of the stage restart, but came back in a few laps later due to overheating. He ended up back off of the lead lap, two laps down in 31st position, by the end of the stage.
LaJoie lost one more lap by the end of the race, finishing three laps off the pace.
After the race, The Racing Experts spoke to the driver of the No. 83 BK Racing Toyota about what he learned after 400 miles at Pocono Raceway. He said, “You can only go as fast as the horse you’re riding.”
LaJoie is 34th in the MENCS point standings.
ROOKIE FINISHES AT POCONO, RACE 14/36
3) Erik Jones
15) Daniel Suarez
18) Ty Dillon
28) Corey LaJoie (-3 LAPS)
29) Gray Gaulding (-4 LAPS)
UNOFFICIAL POINTS POSITION AFTER POCONO, POINTS DEFICIT TO CHASE CUTLINE
17) Erik Jones (-40)
19) Daniel Suarez (-62)
22) Ty Dillon (-115)
34) Corey LaJoie (INELIGIBLE)
35) Gray Gaulding (-280)
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)
6) Martinsville; Erik Jones (12th)
7) Texas; Ty Dillon (17th)
8) Bristol; Ty Dillon (15th)
9) Richmond; Daniel Suarez (12th)
10) Talladega; Ty Dillon (13th)
11) Kansas; Daniel Suarez (7th)
12) Charlotte; Erik Jones (7th)
13) Dover; Daniel Suarez (6th)
14) Pocono; Erik Jones (3rd)