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Top 5: NASCAR at Sonoma, F1 at Baku, IndyCar at Road America – The Athletic

Five thoughts after this weekend’s NASCAR race at Sonoma, Formula One in Baku and IndyCar at Road America…
Daniel Suárez stood outside his motorhome last fall at Texas Motor Speedway and smiled at a question about 2022. Though it was October, Suárez knew where he’d be racing this season: At the same place he spent 2021.
That in itself was a relief, because Suárez never got a true chance to build his own team in the Cup Series. Now, it seemed the opportunity was there at Trackhouse Racing.
“I don’t feel like I’ve ever been an important part of a team in the past,” Suárez said then. “I’ve been, in a way, a transaction. And this is the very first time I feel like, ‘I’m part of Trackhouse Racing. I’m here to stay, to build this team, to make it better and to be able to win races and compete for championships.’”
But until Sunday, the winning part had proven to be elusive. Despite showing flashes of speed, Suárez had yet to put a full race together in the way he did at Sonoma, where he controlled the lead once he got to the front and refused to relinquish the position no matter what kind of pressure was thrown at him.
Now that he’s a Cup Series race winner, it’s easy to see how the seeds planted with the origins of Trackhouse are starting to bloom.
“I’ve been very fortunate to be part of great organizations with great people — but it hasn’t been mine,” Suárez said last fall. “It hasn’t been to support myself 100 percent; it’s been more situational. They’ve thrown me in there and then it’s, ‘No, we need these people (somewhere else),’ and they take them away. Then it’s, ‘We need that pit crew,’ and they take them away.”
That’s certainly not the case at Trackhouse, where team owner Justin Marks has been unwavering in his belief that Suárez is an elite driver who can win races at the Cup Series level. But Suárez only became available after bigger teams decided he was dispensable.
Suárez was once a much-hyped prospect and part of a “NASCAR Next” class that included Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Bubba Wallace and Corey LaJoie. He won the Xfinity Series championship in his second season and was set to spend a third year at that level to help his development.
But then Carl Edwards abruptly retired a month before the 2017 season, and Suárez was rushed to the Cup Series to fill the vacant seat at Joe Gibbs Racing. It didn’t go well.
As a rookie driver for a team that nearly won the championship, Suárez struggled to post results. After two seasons in which he finished 20th and 21st in points, Suárez was replaced by Martin Truex Jr. and shown the door. He landed at another good team, Stewart-Haas Racing, but missed the playoffs and was gone after just one season.
That left Suárez driving for the underfunded Gaunt Brothers Racing, where he suffered through the entire 2020 season without a single top-15 finish. Drivers who find themselves in that position often see their Cup careers killed. They become an afterthought.
But not Suárez. In forming his new Trackhouse team, Marks decided to take a chance on a driver with unrealized potential. Marks invested time, money and energy into making sure the driver felt at home. And he allowed Suárez to settle in and build in a way he was never previously able to.
“I told him from Day One: ‘This 99 team is your team. You come to me and tell me anything and everything that you need. We’re going to put that behind you,’” Marks said.
It’s funny how a little faith can help a person blossom. And now, together, Suárez, Marks and Trackhouse are winners in the NASCAR Cup Series.
It’s too soon to judge the Next Gen car on road courses, but we’ll have a lot more answers in the next couple months after races at Road America, Indianapolis and Watkins Glen. For now, the early returns seem mixed.
Circuit of the Americas in March and Sunday’s Sonoma race both had first-time Cup Series winners and featured interesting late-race battles, which helped the entertainment value. But Sunday, in particular, was a relatively dry affair with no on-track lead changes (the lead only changed hands for pit strategy) and few glimpses of the chaotic nature that helped fuel the rise of NASCAR road racing.
Until 2018, there were only two road course races per season. Now there are six, thanks in large part to the way the old car lumbered around circuits not designed for heavy stock cars. Drivers would make mistakes, wheel-hop, spin-off track, run into one another and create wild moments during double-file restarts.
Now the Next Gen car is here, and it’s been billed as an IMSA-style vehicle that is actually suited for road racing. Drivers love how it handles, shifts and brakes so much better than the previous model on road courses.
But is that causing the races to be tamer? The only cautions on Sunday were for Bubba Wallace’s blown engine, the stage breaks and Kyle Larson’s wheel falling off. Essentially, there were fewer mistakes being made. It looked harder to pass, too.
If this trend continues next month at Road America, it’s worth wondering if the future schedule could be impacted. Road races are only there in high numbers because the fun factor was so high; if that’s no longer the case in the Next Gen Era, will NASCAR be forced to reevaluate its mix of tracks?
We already know the new car has flipped the perception of intermediate tracks and turned them into great events. And we know short tracks have gone from the top of the charts to the bottom.
Whether road courses will follow the latter trend is certainly something worth watching.
It’s time for the Mercedes Formula One team to wave the white flag instead of hoping to see one while leading.
By now, two things are becoming clear: Mercedes’ extreme bouncing issues aren’t going to be solved in the way the team hoped, and it’s also doing potential damage to the drivers themselves.
After seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton experienced back pain throughout much of the weekend in Baku and could barely get himself out of the car after Sunday’s race, Mercedes needs to go in a different direction. This isn’t just the porpoising effect other teams have experienced; the Mercedes cars are repeatedly slamming the ground at more than 200 mph and hammering the drivers in the process.
“We’ve got to improve the ride quality for the drivers, as they have tolerated it today but it’s not acceptable to put them through that every Sunday,” Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin said.
As Hamilton put it, all the performance in the car relies on getting it lower to the ground. Mercedes has had to set up its car that way or it will be too slow to contend. But when the car gets so low that it repeatedly bottoms out on the track, the drivers end up taking the brunt of the impacts — seemingly straight through their spines.
“I just got through that race on adrenaline, biting down on my teeth through the pain,” Hamilton said. “I can’t express the pain that you experience, especially on the straight here. And at the end, you’re just thinking of all the people relying on you for the points.”
Said Hamilton’s teammate George Russell: “Every single bump is the most rigid I have ever felt from any race car and I can barely see the braking zone (because of the bouncing).”
Not great!
Raising the car off the ground will cause a loss of performance, but what’s the alternative at this point? It’s not like Mercedes is anywhere close to Red Bull or Ferrari in terms of competitiveness, even if the team can scrape together results like it did with a third- and fourth-place run at Baku (thanks to Ferrari’s double DNF).
It seems like Mercedes carries some sort of hope the FIA will address the porpoising as a whole and bail them out with regulations. Russell called for as much on Friday, saying: “I don’t know what the future holds for this era of cars, but I can’t see us running like this for the next four years. So for all of us, conversations will be needed as we’re all in the same boat.”
But that’s not exactly true. Red Bull’s boat is speeding through calmer waters while Mercedes is blasting across a choppy lake on a windy day. Or, put another way, the Mercedes is “a shitbox,” as team principal Toto Wolff told Hamilton on the radio.
Last month, we wrote about how Mercedes had a decision to make after Barcelona. But then it saw enough hope at the Spanish Grand Prix that it perhaps delayed the inevitable. Now it seems a different direction is truly needed.
So while Mercedes might find it tempting to chase Ferrari, it’s not a long-term solution at this point. The wiser move would be to throw in the towel on the current concept, preserve drivers’ health by getting the cars off the ground and get to work on a different way of finding speed.
“We are under no illusion of the job we have ahead of us to get back to the front,” Wolff said. “There are no holy cows. Everything is being looked at.”
A great start to the IndyCar season might be getting overshadowed by NASCAR and F1, but it’s been highly competitive whether people are paying attention or not.
After Scott McLaughlin held the points lead for the first two races, the top spot in the championship standings has changed hands on a weekly basis: first defending champ Alex Palou, then Will Power, then Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson, then Power again and now Ericsson again.
Between the close title fight, having only one multi-race winner through the first eight events (Josef Newgarden) and a remarkable eight different polesitters in those eight races (first time since 1961), IndyCar’s level of talent throughout the field is shining right now.
“It’s the most competitive series in the world,” said Ericsson, a former F1 driver. “We have 27 cars this weekend. Out of those 27 cars, it feels like at least 15 of those cars can win the race if they have their day.
“It’s really fun to be part of that. It’s going to be tough all year. Miss a little bit one weekend, you’re P10 or P15. It means you need to be on top of things all the time.”
Newgarden, who has yet to lead the points this season despite winning three races, said there are no consistent trends among teams anymore. An organization might find a performance edge, he said, but now it only lasts for a week instead of an entire season.
Why? For one thing, IndyCar has used the same car for long enough that it becomes a matter of the finest details. Newgarden said it’s “millimeters of changes” that can make a difference. And at the same time, Newgarden said, it’s “impossible to hide something from the competition.”
It all adds up to make each race feel unpredictable and creates wild swings of fortunes whenever a driver in the championship hunt has the slightest bit of an off-day.
“We say every year it’s the closest competition we ever had,” Newgarden said. “Somehow it keeps getting tighter.”
The NASCAR Cup Series grind takes its only real break of the season this weekend, a welcome development for weary teams who have been going non-stop between the race schedule and the new Next Gen car.
NASCAR is cramming its 38 events (36 points races plus two exhibitions) into 40 weekends between February and November this year, but one of those breaks was between the season-opening Clash exhibition race in Los Angeles and the Daytona 500 — which was a frantic time for preparation at the shops. After Daytona, Father’s Day Weekend will represent the lone blank spot on the calendar in a 38-week stretch.
That’s unlike past seasons, which always had Easter as an off-weekend (the Bristol dirt race now runs on Easter) and usually had a summer off-date as well. Last year, there was even a two-week break in July/August to accommodate the Olympics.
But this year has already proven to be a marathon, with 20 straight races still to come after the break. Kurt Busch said the off-weekend will be “very welcomed” and Chase Elliott said he’s ready to “go turn my phone off and enjoy a week away.”
“I thought it would be great to just not have any off-weekends, but I would retract that statement quickly after not having that early-in-the-season off-weekend,” Kevin Harvick said.
NASCAR isn’t the only series feeling run down by a grueling schedule. Formula One has 22 races this season around the world, but spread over just 36 weekends (which includes a three-week summer break in which the shops are closed). That creates difficult travel situations like this week, when the series travels from Azerbaijan to Canada for the Montreal race.
The F1 schedule was actually supposed to include a record-breaking 23 races this year (Russia was dropped) and there’s talk of reaching 24 dates (the maximum allowed by the Concorde Agreement) as soon as next year. Drivers have said the F1 schedule is excessive, with Red Bull’s Sergio Perez telling The Athletic he’d quit if the calendar grew much more.
But at least F1 gets its mandatory summer shutdown, which includes a 14-day period in which all the factories must be closed in order to provide a proper break while also cutting costs.
There are no such regulations in NASCAR, though Harvick said there should be.
“I wish they would just shut the shops and it would be mandatory,” he said. “Doors locked for a week like F1, just to make sure those (crew) guys don’t get overworked. But I know a lot of them will take some time and hopefully take a week and get rejuvenated and go from there.”
(Top photo of Daniel Suárez: Stan Szeto / USA Today)

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