By Toby Christie (Follow on Twitter @Toby_Christie)
Daniel Suarez entered the 2018 season on the brink of his first-career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win and hopes were high for making the Cup Series Playoffs. Although neither box was checked off, Suarez still had a decent year as he continues to transition into being a formidable Cup Series driver.
The season-opening Daytona 500 did not get off to an ideal start. On lap 60, Suarez was wadded up in a nine-car melee on the backstretch. His day would end with a 37th-place finish.
After another couple rough outings at Atlanta and Las Vegas, Suarez bounced back for his first top-10 of the season with an eighth-place effort at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.
The remainder of March and the beginning of April were forgettable for the Mexico native, but Suarez began to show signs of life when Bristol came around. During a four-race stretch between that Spring race at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile and Dover, Suarez recorded three top-10 finishes and he had an average finish of 8.5.
It looked like things were about to finally turn around for the No. 19 team. Then, they didn’t. Suarez struggled mightily through the next nine races and did not record a single top-10 during that stretch.
With Suarez on the ropes, finally a breakthrough happened.
The driver captured his first-career pole position for the Gander Outdoors 400 at Pocono Raceway in July. This race would be the highlight of a frustrating campaign. Suarez would lead the race three separate times for a grand total of 29 laps.
In a duel during the closing laps, Suarez just needed a little push from behind to get the lead but it just didn’t happen.
“You know, we did a good job. I feel like we put ourselves in position. We just have to put ourselves in position more often. If this starts to happen often, we are going to get one,” Suarez said. “We just have to keep working hard, and maybe next time we can get a little bit more help from behind. I feel like that was all it was going to take, just a little bit more push.
“The last restart it was very good on my side. I was side drafting the 18 very well. I was even with him, and because we were even, the 20 was coming with a big run, and when I saw him coming, I started blocking him but instead of pushing me he decided to try to take the lead, as well, and after that obviously it was — I put myself in attack mode but defense mode at the same time. I knew it was going to be a little bit difficult, but we were able to recover the second place.”
A race later, Suarez put up a stout fourth-place effort at Watkins Glen. In a two-race period, Suarez had moved from 20th in the championship standings up to 18th. It looked like he had finally started to put himself back in a position to make it into the Playoffs.
Unfortunately for Suarez, he didn’t record another top-10 finish over the final four regular season races. Alas, his championship hopes were officially dead.
Suarez would go down swinging though, as he did finish inside the top-10 in three of the 10 Playoff races to close the season out.
In all, Suarez registered three top-five finishes (a career-high) and nine top-10 finishes en route to a 21st-place ranking in the final championship standings.
As we close in on the start of the 2019 NASCAR season, Suarez is on the move. He was booted from his position at Joe Gibbs Racing in favor of Martin Truex Jr., but he has landed on his feet at Stewart-Haas Racing. Suarez will be behind the wheel of the No. 41 Ford Mustang this season.
Billy Scott will be back as the crew chief on the No. 41 again this season as well.
Suarez will have ARRIS and Haas Automation as sponsors this season and he will look to have a career resurgence similar to what Aric Almirola experienced in 2018 when he switched to SHR.
All four of SHR’s teams won races a year ago, and they will look to keep the tradition going this year. For Suarez, that would mean a first-career victory and it would also mean his first shot to race for a championship in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
I Expect Suarez and SHR to be strong throughout the season. Suarez has been very effective at Watkins Glen throughout his two-year career, so that would be a good place to expect a potential first victory. The young driver also has multiple top-10 finishes at Pocono, New Hampshire and Dover.
If he doesn’t win a race, at the very least Suarez should contend for wins more often than he did in 2018.