Initially, Joe Gibbs Racing had hoped that Daniel Suárez would make 2018 his first season as a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver. The move would have come after Suárez spent another season honing his stock car skills and defending his 2016 XFINITY Series title — the first NASCAR national series crown ever won by a driver born outside the United States. But then Carl Edwards changed everything.
It was Edwards’ abrupt and stunning retirement about seven weeks before the 2017 Daytona 500 that jumbled JGR and forced the team to move the Mexican-born Suárez to the No. 19 Toyota in the Cup Series at least one season earlier than anticipated. Suárez got the nod both out of necessity — JGR’s other hot shoe Erik Jones was already committed to a full season with technical partner Furniture Row Racing — and because primary sponsor ARRIS favored Suárez after helping him rise from NASCAR’s Mexico Series and the K&N Series to get established at JGR in the XFINITY Series.
“I think it’s a big climb, a big jump, and so we’ve got to have patience,” team owner Joe Gibbs said when the sudden change was announced in the second week of January last year. “But we’re trying to surround him with everything it takes.”
That patience with Suárez proved necessary for JGR last season. A year after Edwards nearly won a championship, Suárez never became a serious postseason contender.
Suárez’s best effort in 2017 came on the road course at Watkins Glen. There he used a fuel mileage strategy from crew chief Scott Graves to roll to a third-place finish and his only top 5 of the year. Graves, who worked as Suárez’s XFINITY Series crew chief in 2016, joined the No. 19 Cup team just six races into last season after first crew chief Dave Rogers took a personal leave from the company and later returned as its technical director.
That third-place finish at Watkins Glen allowed Suárez to marvel a bit at all that had transpired in such a short period of time. “Five years ago these guys, they were heroes for me,” Suárez said. “You know, I was a fan of all of these guys, and now to be able to be friends with all these guys and to hang out together and to share information and to be teammates is something very good. To race each other hard as well is what we like to do. It’s something very good.”
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Following the same race, Suárez explained what he was hoping to accomplish as his first season in the Cup Series progressed.
“Our plan was to start the season steady and learn because every day it was a big step,” Suárez said. “I’ve been racing in the national series just for two-and-a-half years. There’s just been a lot going on, and I knew that it was a big step.”
Though Suárez rarely dazzled last season, there’s much he did accomplish that suggests he will be much improved in 2018. All of Suárez’s DNFs last season (five for crashes and one for brake failure) came either due to wrecks caused by another driver or equipment failure, and he finished off the lead lap just 10 times.
Another hopeful sign for this season is Suárez’s progression between his first and second years in XFINITY. If he replicates that on the Cup side — in equipment that’s more than capable of doing so — Suárez could finish this season with up to 18 top 10s and an average finish of 13th, putting him in the company of drivers like Brad Keselowski (12.4 average finish last season), Kyle Larson (13.3) and Matt Kenseth (14.3). Accomplishing that would have JGR right back where it wants to be.