At the start of the 2017 season, Daniel Suarez was thrown into the top level of NASCAR on relatively short notice. With the sudden departure of Carl Edwards from Joe Gibbs Racing in mid-January, it left a void to fill with the No. 19 ARRIS Toyota.
Fast forward 10 races, and over 4,000 miles of competition later Suarez sits 21st in the championship standings. The rookie sits 36 points behind the coveted playoff bubble, currently held by Trevor Bayne.
That’s a far cry from where Edwards left off. This team made the Chase last season and came just a few laps from coveted championship hardware at Homestead. Throwing a rookie into that mix, knowing the history here has Suarez feeling those high expectations.
“Pressure is normal,” he said at Richmond last week. “I guess if you can’t handle pressure, you’re in the wrong sport. We’re going to have pressure all the time, not just from the team [itself].”
Suarez is coming off a season in which he was a champion in his own right. He went to Victory Lane three times in the XFINITY Series, sailing through the Chase and winning Homestead. But taking a title in the sport’s second-tier division isn’t a guarantee of continued success. Just ask Sunday’s Talladega winner, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who took five years to score a Cup win after moving up.
Suarez has learned quickly what most drivers say about jumping from XFINITY to Cup – it’s a drastic difference.
“It’s just very easy to be off,” he said. “Seems like when you are off in the Cup car, you are 25th, and when you are off in the XFINITY car, you can still run 10th or 15th. It’s quite a bit different.”
Stubbing his toe with a pit road penalty right off the bat, in this year’s Daytona 500 didn’t help either. That snowballed into some early stumbles, three finishes of 20th or worse.
Crew chief changes have also made it tougher. Veteran leader Dave Rogers took a personal leave of absence following a seventh-place finish at Auto Club Speedway back in March. Interim leader Scott Graves has done an admirable job but the team has no top-10 finishes since his promotion.
But these are challenges Suarez has faced before. If you flash back to his rookie season in XFINITY, he was sitting 10th in the standings after 10 races. Those early struggles came at a time where JGR was dominating the series.
“I’m new,” Suarez explained. “My crew chief [Scott Graves] is new. And pretty much, if you change these two things, it’s a brand new racing team. Everything else changed.”
As a whole, JGR has gotten off to a bit of a slow start, posting a combined six top-five finishes and 14 top 10s while winning just three of 20 stages. Following Kyle Busch‘s opening stage victory to kickoff the year, a strong early performance in the Daytona 500, there was a drought of nearly two months.
It took until the ninth race of the season for the organization to pick up its second stage win when Matt Kenseth led the first 163 laps at Richmond. This past weekend at Talladega, Denny Hamlin led 40 laps in Stage 2. That earned an additional playoff point before wrecks jumbled the running order and set JGR back again.
At this point last season, the four-car team had five victories and three drivers locked into the Chase. This year? Busch has been their most consistent driver and sits just 10th in points. It’s a hard environment for Suarez, who wasn’t even supposed to be there until Edwards shocked the world in January.
Morale, though according to the rookie remains high. He’s confident with owner Joe Gibbs, along with a cohesive race team there’s plenty of patience as they hope for the ship to turn back around.
“There is some speed missing as an organization, and maybe we have one more step left as a team,” Suarez said. “I feel like as a team, we are even one more step back than the rest of the guys, and that’s normal.”
Prior to the 2017 season, Toyota introduced the 2018 version Camry. Getting a grip on that, as well as the departure of Edwards and the new points format has arguably set the team behind.
“I felt like we were going in a good direction maybe a month and a half ago,” he said. “Then, we had some changes that were out of our hands. I feel like we had to start again on these processes in the Cup car.
“I feel like we are going to get there. If you think about it, last year in the XFINITY Series, we won the championship, and we didn’t start very strong. We [didn’t win] our first race until almost the second half of the season (Michigan in June).”
Heading into the summer, Suarez has raced the majority of tracks the circuit is heading to. The hope is that knowledge gets him over the hump and into playoff position.
However, he now knows, as most rookies discover there are going to be some growing pains transitioning to the Cup Series.