DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Rookie Daniel Suarez’s goal for tonight’s Advance Auto Parts Clash is simple.
“I need to be smart, first of all, and then make moves,’’ he told NBC Sports in his motor coach Saturday morning at Daytona International Speedway. “I’m not planning to just ride there in the back and be safe. I need to make moves to learn for next weekend. Sometimes you make mistakes when that happens, but that’s how you learn.’’
Since the Jan. 11 announcement that he was taking over the No. 19 ride at Joe Gibbs Racing for Carl Edwards, Suarez has been learning. He’s never raced in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The cars are new. Many of the drivers are new. So are the race lengths.
Suarez’s homework has included hours of film work, meetings, data reports and personal training. Add media duties and the reigning Xfinity champion has had little free time.
This just only the beginning.
That’s plenty to learn. He’ll get quite an experience in tonight’s 17-car Clash.
“I think his biggest challenge is going to be these cars are aerodynamically way different than the Xfinity car,’’ teammate Denny Hamlin said. “The Xfinity cars, what you need to do to go fast in them is push each other. These cars, it’s not pushing. It’s getting close but not pushing.
“There’s a lot of different side-to-side characteristics of these cars that are way different. The only way he’s going to get better at that is go out and practice and get as many laps as he can.
“We’ve seen in years past rookies have trouble in (the Daytona 500) — a lot of it because they haven’t been put into those situations three-wide middle and middle of the day when the car is not handling well —and they end up wrecking. It could happen to Daniel, but it has happened to a lot of great ones before him.’’
While there’s only so much Suarez can study — he’ll have to experience much on his own — he’s still done what he can to be ready.
It helps that he went for JGR to the organizational test Jan. 31-Feb. 1 at Phoenix, learning about the nuances of the car from the digital dash to how it handles. Edwards was there to lend a hand. Suarez also looked at the data of fellow rookie Erik Jones, who is with Furniture Row Racing, a fellow Toyota team.
“We were able to share some good information and move forward and just to learn a little bit about where he was faster and where I was faster and why,’’ Suarez said. “You have so many tools to help you to learn faster.’’
He studied film, examined in-car video and other segments of races, to see how the track changes during a race, what drivers do to pass or move around. Suarez has spent about six hours studying film for Daytona. He also had mountains of data reports to go through.
“I have more information, I have more data and I have more teammates,’’ Suarez said. “There’s a lot going on. The base of doing things is the same, doing your stuff, go back to the team and share your information.’’
Teammates laud Suarez for the amount of homework he’s done to get to this point. Kyle Busch has joked about how often Suarez has reached out to him to seek advice.
“He knows that he needs to learn an awful lot, and he’s got a good head on his shoulders,’’ Busch told NBC Sports of Suarez. “He comes and asks a ton of questions. He’s always on the phone or coming up and seeing me in person asking me advice, asking me this or that or whatever might be coming up next for him and trying to learn and trying to get better.
“He’s not one of these young kids that comes in and thinks he knows everything and doesn’t need any help and then all of a sudden you don’t see them in two or three years.’’
One thing Suarez hasn’t changed is his workouts even with running longer races. Cup races are often at least 200 miles longer than an Xfinity race. Suarez is confident he’s ready for 500-mile races, including next weekend’s Daytona 500.
“I feel like I’m in good shape to do this,’’ Suarez said. “As soon as I hit the race track for a full race is when I’m going to see exactly where I’m at.’’