2019 was Daniel Suarez‘s third full season in the NASCAR Cup Series, but his first time in unfamiliar territory.
With a few exceptions, Suarez had spent his entire time in NASCAR’s national series racing for either Joe Gibbs Racing or an affiliated team like Kyle Busch Motorsports. However, the closure of Furniture Row Racing at the end of 2018 and the need to keep Martin Truex Jr. in the JGR fold left Suarez on the outside looking in.
Suarez was able to move himself over to Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 41 Ford to replace Kurt Busch after Busch moved to Chip Ganassi Racing. Given the resources at play, this was more or less a lateral move for Suarez. However, Busch had finished seventh in points in 2018 with a victory at Bristol Motor Speedway, six top-five and 22 top-10 finishes. Busch had also won five poles.
In his first two years in Cup, Suarez hadn’t produced anything close to those kinds of results. He was coming off of a year in which he had fallen to 21st in points. Yes, he had more top-five finishes than in his rookie year, but he just hadn’t run as expressively as he did as a rookie. As a rookie, he was a borderline contender for the top 10 in points before falling off. He never got anywhere near there as a sophomore racer.
Going to SHR almost instantly put Suarez on the hot seat. Cole Custer was always going to be breathing down his neck from the moment that Suarez signed the contract to drive the No. 41. SHR couldn’t keep Custer in the Xfinity Series forever. In order to guarantee more than one year in the No. 41, Suarez needed to produce quickly.
The season didn’t start out all that great as he was eliminated in the Big One late in the race along with Matt DiBenedetto, Paul Menard and others. Earning 10 stage points in the race did help his case, though.
What followed was a settling into a nice groove. He earned his first top-10 finish with SHR at Atlanta Motor Speedway. A third-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway (his best run of the year), followed by a top 10 at Bristol, put Suarez up to 12th in points, the highest he reached all season.
In the middle of this stretch, fans got to see what Suarez would do to succeed. During qualifying at ISM Raceway in March, Suarez had a run-in with Michael McDowell after McDowell held Suarez up.
The whole scenario didn’t exactly place either driver in a positive light. However, it did show that Suarez is not a pushover. A later interview expanded upon that outlook. For lack of better words, Suarez demands respect out on the racetrack. If he doesn’t get it from you, you just might get the horns.
Suarez stayed well inside the top 16 until back-to-back bad finishes at Chicagoland Speedway and Daytona dropped him from 13th to 17th in points. Aside from the last couple of weeks of the regular season, he generally stayed outside of the top 16 for the rest of the season.
Later in the year, Suarez ended up having multiple run-ins with Ryan Newman, a man that you generally wouldn’t want to cross. First, the two had contact at Darlington Raceway.
Naturally, Newman wasn’t exactly pleased about that. At the time, they were racing for the final spot in the playoffs. The spin meant that the two drivers entered Indianapolis Motor Speedway tied for 16th. Newman beat Suarez at the Brickyard to get into the playoffs.
In the playoffs, the two drivers had issues once again at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL. Afterward, the two had a discussion on pit road.
Once the playoffs started, Suarez might as well have disappeared. Aside from a swell third-place finish at Texas in November, he more or less did at times. He had two top-10 finishes in the final 10 races of the year. That was offset by four finishes outside of the top 30, including two DNFs due to crashes (Talladega Superspeedway and Kansas Speedway).
As a result, Suarez’s 2019 season in the No. 41 ended with a whimper. Despite that, he did set a career high for top fives in a season (four) and his best points finish (17th). Problem was that performance was nowhere near what Busch did in 2018. It left Suarez vulnerable.
Suarez’s future is unclear as of this writing. Despite bringing a significant amount of money to the table, Suarez lost his ride at SHR for 2020 to Custer. Custer just so happens to have the advantage of being the son of Joe Custer, SHR’s vice president. In addition, Custer had an excellent year in the Xfinity Series, winning seven times and finishing second in points. It was always going to be hard to overcome that.
As the offseason has continued on, all of the good seats in the Cup Series have been swallowed up. Front Row Motorsports cutting back to two teams for 2020 didn’t help his case.
That leaves Suarez looking at dropping back to the Xfinity Series in 2020, which is cutting the weekly field to 36 cars. That will make things that much harder for Suarez to find a decent team. If ARRIS is willing to maintain anything resembling its current level of sponsorship support to the 2016 champion, Suarez would basically be able to pick his ride and have a chance to earn his second title.
If ARRIS doesn’t stay with Suarez, he might be out in the cold completely for 2020. That would be a great shame. He has more than proven to this point that he belongs in the Cup Series. Problem is, there just isn’t any room at the inn right now.
Once February comes along, Suarez will likely see himself in some kind of full-time or part-time Xfinity Series seat. There would also be potential for a part-time Cup schedule. His goal from there will be to get himself back into the Cup Series full time for 2021.
36 starts, 0 wins, 4 top fives, 11 top 10s, 1 pole (Kentucky)
Best Finish: Third (Both Texas races)
Point Standings: 17th
Season Grade: C-