It took over two months for Daniel Suarez to find a new home after not being re-signed by Stewart-Haas Racing.
On Jan. 28, Gaunt Brothers Racing signed Suarez and announced it would be moving to full-time competition after running a part-time schedule since the organization debuted in 2017. Though the signing had to come before the official announcement, the move came just 11 days before Speedweeks began at Daytona International Speedway.
“Personnel was our biggest challenge,” Gaunt said. “We had a lot of equipment – trucks, trailers, cars and all the equipment to work on cars – and we were lucky to have a lot of long-term employees who have been with us for 10 years, but scaling up from running a part-time schedule to a full schedule meant bringing in more people to build a fleet of racecars for an entire 36-race schedule.
“It’s the people who make the cars go. It’s about getting the right people and making sure the culture is right and everybody can work together to make this thing go. That’s the hardest part.”
The team failed to qualify for the Daytona 500 after being involved in an accident with Ryan Blaney during the first Bluegreen Vacations Duel at Daytona. It wasn’t due to the fact that they didn’t have speed, it was just situational and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden halt of the 2020 NASCAR season has given Gaunt Brothers Racing an opportunity to “catch up” per se. All while socially distancing, of course.
“Mark Chambers (general manager), Dave Winston (crew chief) and I got input from our staff, and we came up with a plan that made sense for us and followed all of the guidelines issued by the CDC,” Gaunt said. “We set up staggered shifts, keeping the amount of people on the shop floor under 10, with everyone averaging about 25 hours a week. Social distancing was enforced, and we increased our cleaning service to where they disinfected the shop several times a week.
“We’ve got a world crisis on our hands, and within our sport and how we navigate it, we’ve got the right people working on it. The decision we made almost four months ago was based on experience. If we didn’t have the experience to do this, it might be a different answer, but, collectively, we’ll get through it.”
Suarez kept his eye on the game during the shutdown, noting he’s trying to get in the best shape he possibly could get in come race time.
“This has definitely been a lot different than a typical offseason,” Suarez said. “It’s usually good to spend time with family and travel around and do things I like to do when I’m not racing. But in this situation, we haven’t been able to do most of those things. I tried to work as hard as possible on my fitness and stay good and healthy and stay strong.
“I knew once we got back to where we could go racing, there was going to be a lot of pressure with not a lot of time to prepare everything else that needed to get done. But with every crazy or bad situation, there’s always an opportunity to take advantage of the situation.”
These times are where certain sports teams will falter due to a lack of preparedness, but Gaunt Brothers Racing will not be one of those. Gaunt says the team is ready for the hectic racing schedule. They started it off with a 25th-place finish at Darlington Raceway in NASCAR’s return last Sunday (May 17).
“We’re ready,” Gaunt said. “As difficult and uncertain as this shutdown has been, we made it work for us. We’re committed to our sport and committed to our partners – Toyota, CommScope and Coca-Cola – and we plan to come out of this better than we were going into it.”
Suarez echos his team owner’s sentiments for the races coming up on the schedule with no track time prior to the actual race.
“For the [team], it will be a good challenge, because we’re pretty new in the engineering and simulation departments. … I just have to be smart, try to help the team in every way, make the right decisions and learn, because it’s going to be a whole different game with no track time before the race,” Suarez said. “It’s certainly important to be efficient, to not make mistakes and make sure we have no mechanical issues, no matter how small they can be.”
On May 11, GBR signed on Nick Ollila as its technical director. He will oversee the team’s engineering department. Ollila has been around the highest forms of racing for nearly 50 years.
Suarez currently sits 31st in NASCAR Cup Series points, 174 points behind championship leader Kevin Harvick. He is, however, ahead of Christopher Bell in points, who recently moved up to Cup with Leavine Family Racing after two years of dominating in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.