Comeback season: Daniel Suárez once again proving his statistical worth

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Despite Daniel Suárez voicing optimism to his fans, his disappointment was visible.

He attempted to salvage his place at Stewart-Haas Racing, even bringing personal sponsorship dollars to the fold, but it wasn’t enough late in the 2019 season. For the second consecutive year, he was pushed aside for another driver. It appeared his time as the fulcrum for one of stock car racing’s prominent rides was over, banished to either a back-marker program or to one of NASCAR’s lower-tier divisions.

When Suárez lost the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 ride to Martin Truex Jr. in 2018, it was understood that JGR was shrewdly moving for a former champion. When he lost his ride at SHR in the fall of 2019 — to rookie-to-be Cole Custer — it was more bitter of a pill to swallow, but still something around which casual observers could wrap their heads. After all, Suárez had failed to qualify for the playoffs — he missed by just four points — the only SHR driver to do so. Surely, he was a weak link.

But while he’s yet to profile as an elite, winning Cup Series driver, he also isn’t bad. Repeated demotions were sort of unfair given his statistical outlay.

He was the 16th-most productive driver in his final season with JGR, registering a Production in Equal Equipment Rating — a consideration of a driver’s race result that handicaps team and equipment strength in an attempt to isolate his contribution — better than the likes of Austin Dillon, Matt DiBenedetto and A.J. Allmendinger. In his lone year with SHR, he ranked 13th in the same category, besting fellow SHR drivers Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer, a seven-time champion in Jimmie Johnson and Alex Bowman, a driver one year younger who went on to become a three-time winner in 2021.

How this manifested in his race results, though, was murky. The SHR No. 41 car ranked as the 17th fastest in the series that season, slower than that of Bowyer (11th) and Almirola (14th). And even though Suárez out-finished his speed ranking in 20 of 36 races, he was superficially the odd man out when it came time to promote Custer, a winner of seven Xfinity Series races in the same year.

Thrust upon the open market in late November – a point on the calendar when all good rides were claimed for the upcoming season – Suárez scrambled to put an eleventh-hour deal together with Gaunt Brothers Racing, a part-time team prior to his arrival without a technical alliance of any sort. The juxtaposition was jarring. He went from an organization that shared its campus with a Formula 1 program to one with only a pair of cars in the shop at the time of his hiring the following February.

The season threw Suárez more than a few curveballs. Before COVID-19 scuppered the ability for him to interact with his new team in person on a regular basis, they failed to qualify for the Daytona 500, in which mere participation provides a modest financial windfall, one that Gaunt Brothers Racing desperately needed. His yearlong PEER, a 0.343, served as the worst of his Cup Series career, ranked 28th overall.

But his driving acumen didn’t disappear. It merely shifted goals. With a thin fleet of cars in GBR’s shop, Suárez crashed just 0.09 times per race, the second-cleanest crash rate among full-time competitors, suggesting some of his aggression had been holstered. He also took on a leadership role, requesting frequent competition calls and meetings, something the team hadn’t done prior to his arrival. It was, for the most part, all he could do. His car ranked as the 31st fastest in the series. His best finishes (18th place) came at Bristol and Kansas.

The creation of Trackhouse Racing, which offered a ride to Suárez last October, provided the 29-year-old a more competitive outlet within the Cup Series. Utilizing the engineering support of Richard Childress Racing, the still new and rapidly growing program finds its maiden entry ranked 22nd in average median lap time with its driver up to his old tricks.

Suárez has out-finished his speed ranking in 14 of 23 races this season, needing all of two races to score such a result (16th place on the Daytona road course). He ranks 18th in PEER to this point and ranked eighth (tied with Denny Hamlin) across the six-race stretch ranging from Dover on May 16 to the first leg of the Pocono doubleheader on June 26.

Once again one of the top 20 most productive drivers, he’s also a more polished passer than what we saw of him prior to his exit from SHR. Among those with average running positions ranging 19th-22nd, which includes Custer and Almirola, among others — his surplus passing value ranks in the 99th percentile:

He’s one of five drivers this season with positive surplus passing values on each of the three major track categories: 550-horsepower tracks, 750-horsepower tracks and road courses. The others are Truex, Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch and Ryan Preece. His road racing prowess has yet to truly manifest in worthy results, suffering mechanical failings at COTA, Road America and last Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen.

Trackhouse’s issues this season can be chalked up to growing pains — it’s a program less than a year old. But Suárez has been the light the organization sought from Day 1, a driver reclaiming his career while reminding the industry at large that while he might not be a future 50-race winner, he’s certainly deserving of a top-20 ride. It’s never a guarantee that the Cup Series acts as a straightforward meritocracy, but if it did, Suárez’s place in it would feel secure based on his statistical output from three of his last four seasons and especially so in 2021.

Other drivers have recently found themselves cast aside in similar fashion. Erik Jones lost his own JGR ride and resurfaced with Richard Petty Motorsports. DiBenedetto, if he’s lucky, will find himself in a less competitive ride than the one he’s losing. For them, the blueprint Suárez is writing might not be replicable, but the idea of weathering the storm long enough to strike when a second competitive chance appears should, at the least, be inspirational.

It never made sense that a driver of Suárez’s caliber was nearly ousted from the Cup Series altogether. That he’s found his footing for an ascending program feels like a real-time righting of wrongs.