Daniel Suarez is getting a fresh start – again. For the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season, Suarez will compete with Trackhouse Racing Team, a brand-new operation created by former driver Justin Marks. Having secured a charter and established a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, Trackhouse will race full time in 2021 with Suarez as its sole driver.
A Look Back
Although racing with Trackhouse will be a new challenge for Suarez, the experience of beginning a season with a new team is something familiar to him. The 2021 season is only Suarez’s fifth year in the Cup Series, but Trackhouse will be his fourth different team. He spent his first two years at NASCAR’s highest level with Joe Gibbs Racing. In 2019, Suarez moved to Stewart-Haas Racing, but only lasted a year there. Facing limited options, Suarez accepted a ride with Gaunt Brothers Racing in 2020. GBR had never competed full time before, and its funding was significantly lower than the teams for which Suarez had previously raced. The loss of two rides in three years with a pair of premier organizations represented a hard fall for the 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion.
Not surprisingly, the 2020 season was a massive struggle. Suarez’s best finishes were a pair of 18th places, and he had only one other finish inside the top 20. The best that can be said is that the No. 96 team had only two DNFs and was able to participate in every race except the Daytona 500, despite not being a chartered team. Suarez kept his car clean most of the time, but it was pretty clear that GBR lacked the resources to be truly competitive.
Back in 2018, Suarez nearly pulled off his first Cup Series win at Pocono Raceway, a win that would have saved an otherwise disappointing season. The following year, having traded his JGR Toyota for an SHR Ford, Suarez appeared to have winning potential on several occasions at high-speed intermediate tracks. He posted a pair of third-place finishes at Texas Motor Speedway and two top fives at Michigan International Speedway. Other tracks where Suarez has been traditionally strong include Watkins Glen International, where he has a career average finish of 8.0, and Dover International Speedway. Prior to racing with GBR, Suarez had never finished worse than 14th at Dover through six starts.
Trackhouse may be a new team, but it already feels like the organization has a higher ceiling than GBR. The RCR alliance should help cover the basics in terms of equipment. Marks himself has big plans for Trackhouse, hoping to use his team to promote STEM education. The organization even unveiled a new high-profile investor last week – entertainer Pitbull.
We're going worldwide.
— Trackhouse Racing (@TeamTrackhouse) January 15, 2021
But ambitious plans and celebrity team owners are nothing new to NASCAR. The real question is how well Suarez and Trackhouse will perform once the new No. 99 Chevrolet hits the track. Chances are, they will have more bad days than good ones. While there is good reason to be excited about the debut of Trackhouse and a new opportunity for Suarez, this team will not be fast out of the gate. In fact, it could take them all of 2021 before any improvement really starts to show.
Remember that Trackhouse is a new, single-car team going up against the titans of the Cup Series. That’s a difficult challenge in and of itself, complicated by the reduced at-track schedule that NASCAR will use for most race weekends. No practice or qualifying means less time to work out the bugs. If the No. 99 team shows up on a given weekend with a bad setup, it won’t have many chances to make improvements until the race is underway. That is usually not a scenario that’s conducive to winning.
Suarez must also learn how to communicate with crew chief Travis Mack. Mack’s first full-time job as a Cup Series crew chief, with Kasey Kahne at Leavine Family Racing in 2018, ended after just 15 races. Since then, Mack has been the crew chief for Michael Annett in the Xfinity Series. In roughly two and a half years together, the pair won a single race. However, Annett’s top 10 totals skyrocketed with Mack on the pit box, and the duo made the Xfinity playoffs in both of their full seasons together. Perhaps Mack is yet to realize his full potential as a crew chief.
Certainly, reaching one’s potential is a challenge to which Suarez can relate. You could argue that he has been a victim of too much change too fast and that bouncing around among teams who generally have not made him a priority has stunted the growth of a promising racer. But you could also argue that at the highest level of stock car racing in the world, results matter above all else. While Suarez has faced his share of difficulties, the fact remains that he had two chances with top-flight teams and was never able to make an already bloated playoff field. Plenty of quality drivers never got the opportunities that Suarez already had.
While Suarez needs to make the most of his latest opportunity with Trackhouse, it would be a mistake to judge this team too quickly. The 2021 season is going to be a year of growing pains for the organization, and winning races or making the playoffs is not a realistic expectation. However, being the solitary focus of a single-car team could be just what Suarez needs. He won’t have to compete with, or be measured against, veteran teammates this time. If Marks and Pitbull stay committed to Suarez, and to NASCAR team ownership in general, they may be able to build a winning organization.
This season will be a rough one for Suarez. It could be his last chance with a Cup Series team. But years from now, it could be regarded as the first step toward saving his NASCAR career.