WATKINS GLEN, N.Y.Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Corner after corner they raced nose-to-tail around Watkins Glen International as the end of the second stage of Sunday's NASCAR Cup race loomed, Martin Truex Jr., trying to find a way past rookie Daniel Suarez on the tricky road course.
Truex, the master of stage racing in NASCAR's new points system, failed as Suarez steered his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota across the finish line for the first stage victory of his Cup career.
"I knew that he was coming fast," Suarez said. "I was just trying to hold him off a little bit, and luckily we were able to do it. He's been super strong the entire year. It was just a little hard racing right there at the end."
Unfazed, Truex ended up winning what turned into a fuel mileage race in the No. 78 Toyota, then praised Suarez after celebrating in victory lane.
"I think it just shows the importance of stages," Truex said. "It shows how bad everybody wants to win them. You look at a guy like Daniel, it's a rookie team, rookie driver. It's a big deal for them to win a stage. It's just another step in their progression, and he looked really good out there today. He did a really good job."
The 25-year-old native of Monterrey, Mexico finished third, his best showing of the year. It also was his fourth straight top 10 and third race he's led in 2017.
"It feels very good for sure," Suarez said. "To be that close is tough, but I'm proud of all of these guys, everyone that put this program together. I'm very happy to be a small part of it."
Before the season, Suarez said he would be looking forward to the second half because he figured his team would be more competitive. Completing every race but the season opener at Daytona has given Suarez valuable seat time as he adjusts to NASCAR's top level with crew chief Scott Graves after winning the Xfinity series title last year.
"In the beginning of the year ... I wasn't the same driver. Now I feel like we are moving in the right direction," he said. "We have speed pretty much every weekend now where we are running in the top 10. I don't think it's a surprise anymore to run in the top 10. We just have to keep it up.
"We have to keep ourselves calm, and hopefully we can catch a break in the next few weeks, month or so, to try to make it in the playoffs. Five years ago I was wishing to be in this position one day, and I'm just very excited and very happy to be here right now."