Daniel Suarez is ascending. He’s ready for his next NASCAR step
Purely from a racing standpoint, Daniel Suárez possibly didn't know how to feel bopping around Nashville last week.
For a driver knocked out of the playoffs following the quarterfinal round and who finished 10th in the standings, it for sure was a solid year. But Suárez saw his teammate, Ross Chastain, make it to the championship round and finish second overall.
So he knows the tools are there for him to thrive, and while he had the best season of his career, he might wonder whether he could have achieved even more.
"Ross did a very good job this year," Suárez said. "They put the bar in a good spot. Ross and his team, on a consistent basis, they were strong. We were probably 70% [of the time] with them.
"When we were strong, we were as good as they were. But one time out of five, we were missing it. We will have to continue to work."
Simply comparing himself to Chastain would be a little myopic considering where Suárez has been. When he looks at the past offseasons he has endured, the sport's only Mexican-born driver has to feel good about his place in NASCAR.
"It's a motivation, and I feel like there are a lot of things to celebrate," Suárez said about Chastain's finish. "We did a good job as a team — a lot of good days, a lot of bad days as well that we have to learn from.
"We will try to grow and to get better. In the first year, I would say, 80% of the people on my team were new working together."
That experience was nothing new for Suárez. He found out in September 2018 that he would not return to Joe Gibbs Racing for a third season, and it wasn't until January 2019 that Suárez was named driver of Stewart-Haas Racing's No. 41 cup car.
Then, in November 2019, SHR told him he wouldn't be back in 2020. Suárez scrambled for a ride, hooking up with Gaunt Brothers Racing, a part-time team that with the help of Toyota, opted to go the full year with Suárez. The team missed the Daytona 500 and struggled with Suárez finishing 31st in the standings.
Suárez found new life at Trackhouse Racing and had a decent year in 2021 as the organization was embedded at Richard Childress Racing. Trackhouse co-owner Justin Marks bought out Chip Ganassi Racing and expanded to two cars for 2022, putting Suárez in an optimistic but yet still major transition a year ago as he came off a year where he had four top-10s but still an average finish outside the top-20.
Last season finally saw Suárez get back into his groove and then some. He set career-bests of six top-5s (he had four in 2020) and 13 top-10s (he had 12 as a rookie in 2017). The biggest moment came in June at Sonoma with his first career Cup victory. He became the first Mexican driver to win a Cup race, building on a historic resume that includes a 2016 Xfinity Series title for him to become the first Mexican driver to win a NASCAR national series championship.
"I don't pinch myself for the win [compared to] where I was two years ago," Suárez said. "I would say 99 percent of the people lost faith in me. ... It was good to come back and to confirm that I can still be a winner and successful at the Cup level.
"That felt great. I am very, very happy for that. There were so many positives from this year. And I feel like next year can only get better."
Now Suárez gets to look ahead to 2023 and know for the most part, everything remains the same. So that is why he moved around Nashville with optimism and maybe a little more of a smile on his face than some of the other drivers at the NASCAR awards who remained frustrated they didn't have the season they wanted.
"I've been in the Cup Series for six years, but most of those years has been a transition or some things have been happening – it hasn't been consistent for me," Suárez said.
"I haven't been able to grow with my team. This is my first opportunity I could take my team and make it better for next year."
It also is the first opportunity in a long time where Suárez can talk to people in the offseason with a résumé that shows his optimism isn't based on hope. He knows race fans wondered if he could get the job done on the track.
"I would call it credibility," Suárez said. "That is very important. Although I was pretty successful in the Xfinity Series, you're as good as your last race.
"And if you didn't do well this year, it doesn't matter if you did amazing last year. People are going to forget that. It is important to reinforce that and continue to improve the credibility."
While he enjoyed his 2022 season, Suárez was glad to see it end. He had not had a year when he had made the playoffs, and he advanced out of the first round – meaning he had six weeks of additional on-track pressure he didn't have in past years.
Plus, he'll readily admit that when a driver goes to the track thinking the chances to win are greater, it takes a toll.
"This is the first time I had the opportunity to fight the entire year long," Suárez said. "We had a handful of races we missed it by a lot. ... It was a consistent fight. So, honestly, by the time, we got to Phoenix, I was exhausted.
"I really needed to take a little bit of a break and relax my mind."
Suárez also had something to look forward to — his offseason started off about as strong as one could with a trip overseas that included him proposing to girlfriend Julia Piquet.
"I had the ring with me for a few months, so I was ready," he said with a laugh. "I had the plan in mind. ... I had a plan in mind on how everything was going to go and it went pretty close to that."
And his plan for next season? He said the belief of how strong his team can be, based on his performance and that of Chastain, will change the outlook from the start.
"This year, we exceeded many people's expectations inside of our team," Suárez said. "Now many people inside our team believe that we belong to this standard. So I believe — it won't be easy — but I think we are going to be able to put the bar on a higher level.
"I would like to win a few races and make the Championship 4. And I think that is realistic. ... We have potential to do amazing things."
Thinking Out Loud
When Christian Eckes was announced as driving a truck for McAnally-Hilgemann Racing next year, it was a little bit of a surprise since he appeared set to return to ThorSport Racing next season.
But it appears ThorSport is ready to switch to Ford and put Hailie Deegan in one of its trucks. The team has not announced plans, indicating it is still finalizing its 2023 lineup and manufacturer.
Many wonder whether Deegan, who just completed her second year in the trucks, is still a viable prospect. Her average finish, driving for David Gilliland Racing, went from 20.9 her rookie season in 2021 to 22.1 this year. Not good.
But she placed 13th in her Xfinity debut at Las Vegas, showing that there could still be potential that people saw in her from 2018-2020 when she won three ARCA West races and also finished third in the ARCA national series standings. The lack of any significant practice at many tracks also makes one wonder if with just more track time, she could excel.
If she does end up at ThorSport, no one will have to wonder. The team has won races and championships in recent years. Whether she has a breakout year in 2023 will be one of the series' biggest storylines.
Have a question? Respond to this Twitter post with your question:
Here are this week's questions and answers:
Could you see Zane Smith with SHR or FRM in 2024 if he stays with Ford?
Front Row Motorsports has Zane Smith under contract and if I'm going to guess, he'll drive a Cup car for that team in 2024. Now, that isn't saying he definitely will, but FRM appears to be grooming him for that role. And that wouldn't be a bad thing for Smith to continue to grow and not have as much pressure as he would have if he goes to one of the bigger Ford teams for a rookie season in Cup. That being said, money talks, and if there is a sponsor out there that wants Smith, I could see him at any Ford team (Stewart-Haas, Wood Brothers, Penske, Roush Fenway Keselowski). I do believe Ford would do everything it can to keep him in the Ford camp.
Any word on Jeffrey Earnhardt's plans for next year?
There are still several part-time and full-time rides open at Xfinity teams, and I believe that is where Earnhardt's focus is. He hasn't made any announcements and these things tend to be fluid. While he drove for Sam Hunt Racing and Emerling-Gase Motorsports in 2022, don't rule out other teams, such as Alpha Prime Racing, as a potential landing spot for Earnhardt.
They Said It
"I have no regrets when it comes to the mistakes that I've made because it's made me who I am. ... It's really not about winning and losing. It's about winning and growing."
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Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.