Toyota rookies Suarez, Jones shine in the desert with Phoenix top 10s

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By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

Toyota rookies and former teammates Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez entered Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (MENCS) race at Phoenix Raceway on different waves of momentum, but in the end the duo ended the day together again as they shared the spotlight with twin top 10s in the Arizona desert.

Suarez and Jones made the most of a late caution in Sunday’s Camping World 500 to tally their first top-10 finishes in the MENCS. Suarez took the checkered flag in seventh, with Jones following closely behind in eighth.

For Jones, the run came as validation after two prior close calls with the top 10 ended in disappointment.

“We had it kind of coming here in the last couple of weeks,” Jones said. “We just had a few issues to iron out whether it be on pit road or on the race track. Just bad circumstances.”

The Byron, Michigan native was one of many drivers to fall victim to an attrition-filled Daytona 500, finishing 39th in his Furniture Row Racing debut after getting swept up in an early crash.

However, while the first weekend was disappointing, the 20-year-old has followed the performance with three consistent drives, displaying his talent and potential in the process.

Erik Jones was one of many drivers to crash out of the Daytona 500. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

The No. 77 team’s success started at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where they overcame a 23rd-place qualifying effort to run inside of the top 10 for most of the event’s second half. The run was slightly soured when a late-race adjustment made Jones’ Toyota too tight, leading to a 14th-place finish, but the Michigander’s speed throughout the race fostered hope for his future runs.

Jones followed that early result with a similar performance at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, once again running inside of the top 10 for the majority of the race. However, a string of pit road woes – a bad pit entry from Jones and a slow stop on the final round of pit stops among them – left the 2015 Camping World Truck Series champion 15th while teammate Martin Truex, Jr. took home the victory.

Given those early runs, Jones knew his team was strong enough to contend for top 10s. They just needed to minimize their mistakes.

Such was the case on Sunday, as the rookie wheelman outdrove teammate Truex to lead FRR in his first Cup Series top 10.

“Definitely the best day overall for the 5-Hour Energy Camry,” Jones said. “Just well put together. We got better all day, had good pit stops, good on pit road, executed well and did everything we needed to do to run in the top 10.”

The Toyota stand out was happy to enjoy his first top 10 at NASCAR’s top level, but he was also quick to acknowledge that his team could had potential to be better after running inside of the top five before the race’s final yellow.

“Didn’t quite work out at the end the way we were hoping,” Jones said. “Your expectations change as the day goes on and we wanted to run fifth. We felt like we had a fifth place Camry but it just wasn’t in the cards. Good restart at the end, and we got back up to the top 10.”

While Jones was left searching for more, Suarez celebrated a much-needed coming of age after a dreadful start to the season.

Suarez entered with hight expectations when he was announced as the driver of the No. 19 Toyota upon Carl Edwards’ unexpected retirement, fair or unfair as they may be.

The Monterrey, Mexico native was making his way to the MENCS as the defending XFINITY Series champion, and he was joining a Joe Gibbs Racing organization that dominated most of 2016. In theory, Suarez was better situated for success than any rookie save for perhaps Chase Elliott in the last decade.

However, Suarez had only two full years of experience in NASCAR’s top three series, and the learning curve proved greater than anticipated in the season’s opening weeks.

Suarez was one of many drivers to crash in Daytona, finishing 29th after crashing out during the second half of the race.

The NASCAR Drive for Diversity graduate didn’t wreck in either of the two ensuing events, but his struggles were noticeable nonetheless. Suarez was largely uncompetitive in both races, struggling to stay on the lead lap at Atlanta and Las Vegas as he earned mediocre finishes of 21st and 20th, respectively.

At first, Phoenix didn’t prove much better. The Toyota shoe qualified just 27th, despite having experience at the one-mile oval in the form of a Jan. test.

However, unlike in previous weeks, the No. 19 team improved as the race went on.

Suarez rose into the top 20 through the race’s opening two stages. By the time there were 50 laps remaining, he was firmly inside of the top 15. That’s likely where he would have finished, too, but a late flat tire for Joey Logano led to one last caution and an opportunity to improve.

In the end, Suarez did just that, surging into the top 10 to give his No. 19 team some much-needed momentum.

“It’s a big deal because in the last two races we have struggled,” Suarez said. “We didn’t have the speed and the communication wasn’t great, but we’ve been working very hard trying to work on chemistry, communication and for sure we’ve been getting better.”

In many ways, the race (and Rookie of the Year battle to date) reflected last season’s XFINITY Series battle. Led by sheer talent, Jones quickly shot out as a favorite, showing promise with early speed. However, in the end Suarez rose to equal him, at least for one week.

The MENCS is filled to the brim with talented young stars. Fourth-year star Kyle Larson leads the point series leaving Phoenix, and sophomores Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney are both firmly inside of the top 10.

If Sunday’s results are any indication, they may not be the only ones to watch this year, either.

The talented rookies at Toyota are a few steps away from stealing plenty of headlines for themselves.

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