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Big steps: Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones have best Cup career finishes

Alert Today Florida 300 - Qualifying

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 21: Erik Jones, driver of the #20 GameStop/Rock Candy Toyota, left, and Daniel Suarez, driver of the #18 ARRIS Toyota, talk on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR XFINITY Series Alert Today Florida 300 at Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

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Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones on Sunday took the biggest steps yet in their budding NASCAR Cup careers.

The Cup rookies and Toyota drivers both earned career-best finishes – both top-10 showings – in NASCAR’s premier series.

Suarez finished seventh, while Jones was right behind in eighth in the Camping World 500 at Phoenix Raceway.

It was Suarez’s fourth Cup race, all in 2017, while it was Jones’ seventh career Cup start (four in 2017, three in 2015).

“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.

“(Saturday) in the last practice, in the happy hour, I felt very good about the car. I feel like we were going to have a shot to have some fun in the race and I wasn’t wrong. The team did a very good job.”

Suarez’s finish was helped immensely by a lightning-fast pit stop to take two tires.

“The guys did an amazing job,” Suarez said. “They just did exactly what they had to do: a fast pit stop, two tires and the car was almost as good as four tires.”

Jones, meanwhile, had an inkling heading into Sunday’s race that a strong finish was potentially in the cards.

“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.

“Finally, everything kind of played out the way we needed it to. Didn’t quite work out at the end the way we were hoping. … 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.”

Jones may have had a bit of an edge in Sunday’s race because he was among 13 teams that tested at Phoenix in early February.

“I think it helped a lot,” Jones said of the test. “It was able to at least give us a good baseline to start with.

“I think every time we start coming back to these tracks for the second time we’re just going to be that much better and that much stronger. It was a big deal. I hope we test somewhere else this year for sure.”

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