Daniel Suarez should have all of the pressure on him.
He embarked this season on a second (and possibly last) chance in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing. He drives a car co-sponsored by the team owner’s business. He replaced a driver who won six races and made the playoffs in each of his five seasons.
If Suarez doesn’t perform well this year, it would appear he could find himself wondering what happened to his NASCAR career just a few years after winning the Xfinity Series title.
But the 27-year-old, the first full-time Mexican driver in the Cup Series, appears relaxed two months into the 2019 season with his new home at Stewart-Haas Racing. Even a scuffle with Front Row Motorsports driver Michael McDowell last month after qualifying at ISM Raceway near Phoenix didn’t seem to faze him.
Suarez heads to Bristol Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Food City 500 (2 p.m. ET, Fox) with back-to-back top-10 finishes as he seeks highlights beyond his epic line of “If you don’t give me respect, I’m going to kick your (butt)” that followed his scrap with McDowell.
At the time, Suarez denied that the scrap was a sign of him feeling the pressure, just that he felt wronged by a McDowell move.
“I always put pressure on myself,” Suarez said. “But that was just I want to perform well and I knew … how important was going to be qualifying.”
To his car co-owner, Tony Stewart, what you see is what you get with Suarez and he shouldn’t feel the pressure.
“He’s already passed the audition,” Stewart said. “He’s got the job. I told him there’s no pressure. That’s the same thing I told Aric Almirola last year.
“You’ve already got the job, now settle in, work with your team and go race.”
Stewart sees plenty of similarities between Almirola and Suarez. Almirola spent six years at Richard Petty Motorsports before jumping over to SHR, where he made the playoffs, won at Talladega in October and finished fifth in the standings in 2018.
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“Just like when we had Aric come on board last year … these guys want to win so bad,” Stewart said. “They’ve ran well but they haven’t got that win yet. They try so hard that they almost force themselves into mistakes.
“We’ve seen that a couple of times with Daniel, but I would still take a driver that does that than a driver that doesn’t try hard enough being too cautious.”
The difference: Suarez came from Joe Gibbs Racing, an organization at the top of its game that needed to make room for 2017 Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. and decided to jettison Suarez.
While the release stung, Suarez also knew something seemed lacking for him at JGR. He had three crew chiefs over the two seasons and the team had trouble making the car better throughout the race weekend. He finished 21st in the standings in 2018 after a 20th-place finish as a rookie in 2017. He landed the deal at SHR by continuing his relationship with sponsor Arris, which replaced Monster on the car co-branded with Haas Automation, owned by team founder Gene Haas.
“Last year, I wasn’t happy,” he said. “This year, I feel more relaxed and I’m just doing my thing. … It is going way more smooth than what I was expecting.”
Suarez and his SHR team — virtually the same group that worked with SHR driver Kurt Busch last year — have tried to accelerate building team chemistry with everything from a team bowling match to Suarez working out with his pit crew.
“I already had the chemistry with the mechanics and engineers,” said crew chief Billy Scott. “It was a matter of learning him. He has been awesome to work with and easy to deal with.
“He’s been very accommodating. He has put in the work himself. He always wants to know what kind of data he can get.”
Suarez posted just one top-10 finish in the first five races, but he has finishes of 10th and third in the last two. He has improved from 20th in the standings to 14th in the last three weeks.
“I have always had confidence in myself,” Suarez said. “I feel like if I lose confidence in myself I have lost everything, and I know what I can do. I didn’t get here just by luck, so I know what I can do.”
Throughout last weekend at Texas, Suarez had the most consistently strong speed of any of the SHR drivers.
“I told everybody he’d be a good asset to our team,” SHR driver Clint Bowyer said. “He’s full of that piss and vinegar. That enthusiasm goes a long ways with his race team and everybody at the organization.
“He’s a bulldog, man. We saw that in Phoenix, and he drives the same way.”