A birthday celebration that eases pain of 2018 for Daniel Suarez

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Amid a day celebrating his 27th birthday and new Cup ride with Stewart-Haas Racing, Daniel Suarez confided how difficult 2018 was.

But without that season — and a series of events beyond his control — Suarez wouldn’t be with a Stewart-Haas Racing team that saw its four drivers win races last year and each advance to the third round of the playoffs.

The joy makes up for the frustration and angst Suarez experienced last year while at Joe Gibbs Racing. After finishing 20th in points as a rookie in 2017, more was expected last year from his team.

Suarez and his team didn’t deliver.

“I wish I knew many answers,” Suarez told NBC Sports on Monday about last season’s struggles. “I can tell you we were not even close to my expectations. As a driver, you always have your expectations and then as a team you plan the expectations of the team, and I don’t feel we got to either expectations.

“We had good results. We had a couple of second-place finishes and few top five finishes but (were) extremely inconsistent, extremely inconsistent. I don’t really know exactly what was the problem. I just know that in a year we were not able to fix it. We tried.

“Once I saw that something wasn’t right, I was pushing very hard with the team to try to fix it, and we just couldn’t. I don’t know. I felt like a change, it was going to be good for me. I’m very, very grateful for the opportunity that Gibbs gave me in the national series and Toyota, but once I moved to Cup, I felt like it was a little slow for myself. I was working extremely hard to fix that, I just couldn’t make it work.”

As Suarez struggled for results — he would finish 21st in the points — other factors were taking place that would impact his future.

Furniture Row Racing announced July 18 that 5-hour Energy would not return after the season, a blow to the Denver, Colorado-based team. Car owner Barney Visser was unable to replace the primary sponsorship for this season and announced Sept. 4 that the team would cease operations, leaving 2017 Cup champ Martin Truex Jr. without a ride.

Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn would ink deals with Joe Gibbs Racing and join the organization in 2019. That meant JGR had to jettison one of its drivers. Suarez was told he would not be retained less than two years after winning the Xfinity title for JGR and not yet though his second full Cup season.

“I was very disappointed,” Suarez told NBC Sports. “I will tell you that for a month I was a different person. I was mad with everyone. I don’t feel that I was being a good person in general, not just in racing but in general.

“But then you just have to realize that everything happens for a reason. The position that I’m in today was something that maybe, who knows, without that change, who knows if I would have been able to do this move. I honestly feel like I’m in a better position than I was a year ago.

“I’m really relieved that everything happens for a reason, and I’m extremely grateful to have this second chance in a top-caliber team. I’m really excited to go out there and show what I can do and what I couldn’t do last year.”

Suarez admits he was worried for more than a month last year where he would race once JGR said it would let him go after the season. There were questions if sponsor Arris would remain at Joe Gibbs Racing or follow Suarez to another ride. The logical destination for Suarez was the No. 41 car at Stewart-Haas Racing with Kurt Busch leaving that ride, but Suarez would need to bring sponsorship. Without Arris, the chances of him being in that car — one that won a race last year and won the Daytona 500 two years ago — were less. Arris will sponsor Suarez’s ride, along with Haas Automation, at SHR.

“When things start to happen, you don’t really know who has your back and who doesn’t,” Suarez told NBC Sports. “I thought a lot of people had my back at one point and then the next week all of a sudden everything changed. There were a lot of questions. A lot of questions without answers. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t just a fun month or so. Like I said, everything started to get on track, everything started to get better, a better idea of where everything was going to go.

“I just feel very, very happy to be in the position I’m in today with great teammates, a great organization.”

While he hasn’t worked with new teammates Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola before, he’s spent time with them.

Suarez said that he’s known Harvick since running in the Xinfity Series. Suarez often asked Harvick questions or for advice on matters. Same with Bowyer. Suarez and Almirola often rode bikes in the same group last year at the track.

Now he will seek to help them repeat what they did last year by getting every SHR car back to Victory Lane.

“That’s something that is very, very hard to do,” Suarez told NBC Sports. “Sometimes people don’t realize. Most of the big team teams, they have very good programs, but they don’t every single car winning and up front. Stewart-Haas Racing was able to do that. You know when you are able to do that you have an extremely good group of people behind those programs working extremely hard.”

Suarez is confident he can win in the No. 41 car this year with crew chief Billy Scott. Suarez cites the new package teams will run this year and notes he finished second to Harvick in the All-Star Race when a similar package was tried last year.

“I will say to myself, why not?” Suarez said of winning this year. “The team is good, strong. The team is pretty much exactly the same. The only part that has changed is the driver. The rules are different. I feel those rules, if anything, are going to help me based on what I experienced in the All-Star Race. I have high expectations. The team has high expectations as well.

“I feel there is a lot of potential to do great things this year.”

Nate Ryan contributed to this report