Two years ago, Trackhouse Racing Team looked to hire Daniel Suarez as their first full-time driver in the NASCAR Cup Series. It would be his fourth team in four years, coming off a 2020 season in which he never finished better than 18th and failed to qualify for the Daytona 500.
"He had a chip on his shoulder," owner Justin Marks said of meeting Suarez at that low point. "He wanted to prove to the world he belonged in the Cup Series."
No better way to do that than clawing your way to victory lane, taking out years of frustration by punching your fist right through a pinata.
Such was the reward for Suarez and his Daniel's Amigos Fan Club Sunday after a dominating performance during the final stage of the Toyota/Save Mart 350. As the sport's top two road course racers, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson, fell apart at the seams, this race became a golden opportunity for a handful of drivers who hadn't yet won in 2022.
Suarez jumped up and took control of the race, leading 47 of the final 50 laps to cruise to a 3.849-second win over Chris Buescher. It's the largest margin of victory this year in a race that proved relatively tame by Next Gen standards.
Just try telling that to Suarez, only the fifth foreign-born native to win in NASCAR. It was the most emotional last lap of his life as he finally climbed the mountain of this sport in his 195th career start.
"I just start crying inside the helmet," he said. "Since I had a big gap, I was just thinking about every single moment that has cost me to be here."
That's included stints at some of the sport's top teams, Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing. The 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, Suarez became a Cup rookie months later, given championship-level expectations when Carl Edwards unexpectedly retired.
By the time Marks started his team, Suarez was on his last legs, stuck with an underfunded Toyota program that shouldn't have been running full-time. It was a special resilience in the face of adversity that instantly connected with the Trackhouse owner.
"I have almost never met a more determined, focused, hard-working race car driver in my 20 years in the sport," he said. "Every single morning [Suarez] wakes up and says, 'I am going to be the best version of myself I can be today, I'm going to do all the work I can possibly do today to win this race this weekend."
That attitude helped during a flurry of bad-luck moments this season, where Suarez watched teammate Ross Chastain win twice as he struggled to achieve the same success.
Not anymore. Suddenly, this upstart organization finds itself with two drivers in position to chase a championship.
Green: Michael McDowell -- Let's give a call to another unheralded driver, the 2021 Daytona 500 winner tying his best result since that race with a third-place finish. Sixteen races into the year, McDowell has more top-10 finishes (six) than any full season of his career after more than a decade running the Cup Series.
Yellow: RFK Racing -- A week after missing a race due to COVID-19, Chris Buescher nearly cashed in on his first race win since 2016 at Pocono Raceway. Teammate and part-owner Brad Keselowski wasn't far behind, earning his first top-10 finish since the season-opening Daytona 500. It's a solid foundation to build from for a team that's spent most of its first year together hobbling through self-induced mistakes.
Red: Martin Truex Jr. -- A one-race reunion with former championship crew chief Cole Pearn (serving as race engineer this time) proved unfulfilling as this three-time Sonoma winner wound up 26th. Still winless on the season, the playoff bubble is shrinking for a driver that's without a top-5 finish in six straight races and openly contemplating retirement.
Speeding Ticket: Chase Elliott -- Elliott, who's won seven of his 14 career races on road courses, had this race in the bag until a stage two pit stop killed his track position. The crew failed to tighten all his wheels, forcing Elliott to pull into reverse to fix the problem. The 2020 NASCAR champ failed to pull all the way back into his pit box, drawing a penalty that left him restarting at the tail end of the field.
Eighth was a nice recovery considering. But this program left disappointed as they expect to win on this track type every time out.
Pole sitter Kyle Larson, up front at Sonoma for a fifth straight race here, was hoping to win back-to-back events at his home track. From the start, it just wasn't meant to be as a bad pit strategy call by crew chief Cliff Daniels left him trapped in traffic after winning the first stage.
Larson was fighting hard to recover, climbing from 24th inside the top 10 before the wheels literally came off his comeback.
Causing the final caution of the race, with 27 laps remaining, the mistake also comes with a costly four-race suspension of Daniel along with Larson's jackman and right front tire changer. It's the 10th such penalty for a Cup team this year as pit crews struggle to tighten the single lug nut on these wider Goodyear tires.