CHARLOTTE, N.C. — NASCAR Cup series driver Daniel Suarez isn’t sure about his feelings regarding his release from Joe Gibbs Racing.
He wants to say he no longer has hard feelings. But he might not really know until he sees the JGR No. 19 car on the track driven by Martin Truex Jr., whose hiring left Suarez without a ride.
“I’m going to wreck him,” Suarez says with a laugh.
He wasn’t serious, although he doesn’t truly know whether the past will motivate him as he takes over the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 car this season. Suarez, 27, has a multiyear deal with SHR, which was announced Monday, with sponsorship from Arris and Haas Automation.
“It’s hard to answer that question [about his feelings] with the truth because the reality is that this is a business and it is very hard to have hard feelings,” Suarez said. “At the same time, it’s very hard not to take it personal because it is my life in the middle of all this.
“But at the end of the day, I felt like this is the best seat that actually could happen. I needed fresh air. I needed a change. Last year wasn’t good for me.”
The Monterrey native is the only full-time Mexican driver to compete in the Cup series. His Cup career was nearly derailed when JGR hired the 2017 Cup champion Truex, resulting in the unexpected release of Suarez after two seasons in the series.
“There is no hard feelings at all, but at one point I would tell you there were, and I was nervous about what was going to happen,” Suarez said. “But today I’m very grateful. … It’s not easy to go from a very good team to another very, very good team.
“That’s exactly what just happened to myself.”
The 2016 Xfinity Series champion, Suarez was pushed into Cup a year earlier than expected when Carl Edwards retired about six weeks before the 2017 season. Suarez finished a respectable 20th in points with one top-5 and 12 top-10s even though crew chief Dave Rogers resigned early in the season.
Suarez was plagued by inconsistency in 2018, finishing 21st in the standings with three top-5s but only nine top-10s. With Truex bringing his crew chief, Cole Pearn, aboard for 2019, Suarez’s crew chief, Scott Graves, left the team with six races remaining to take a job at Roush Fenway Racing.
“There was just something that wasn’t working [at Gibbs] and we didn’t know what it was, and for that reason, I felt like fresh air and something new was going to be best for me — I knew that even before everything happened,” Suarez said.
“And then things start to happen that way and I [thought] , ‘You know what? This is going to be disappointing at the beginning.’ But when things start to work out better, I was extremely excited for the challenge and extremely excited for the change.”
SHR won 12 races in 2018 and put all four of its drivers into the third (semifinal) round of the NASCAR playoffs.
“I feel like Gibbs was extremely good to me,” Suarez said. “We won [Xfinity] races together. We won a championship together. They gave me an opportunity to go to Cup in 2017. In 2017, we did very good for being our first year.
“Last year, unfortunately, I didn’t meet my expectations, not even close. … There was something missing somewhere. I couldn’t find it and they couldn’t find it.”
If Suarez has learned anything in his career, it is how to adapt to change — and what change can mean for a team. So the move to SHR marks another bit of uncertainty, but with incredible potential.
Daniel Suarez, speaking in Spanish, talks about his move from Joe Gibbs Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing as he remains the only full-time Mexican driver to compete in the NASCAR Cup Series: Video by Bob Pockrass
“I had maybe a month, month and a half where I was nervous of what was going to happen, but options [started] to come my way quickly and we were able to lay things down,” Suarez said. “Then Arris was able to support myself and my career, and that was very, very helpful and really everything fit very well with Stewart-Haas Racing to be where I’m at today.”
While the announcement was Monday — not only was it Suarez’s birthday but it was 41 days until the Daytona 500 — Suarez has known for weeks that the deal was imminent. He had been to the shop, but came during non-working hours.
“Now that the news is official, it’s going to be way easier to work and I won’t have to be hiding every time I go to the shop, so I feel like it’s going to be even more comfortable,” Suarez said. “I’m happy that this day finally came and we’re able to enjoy the day a little bit and then go back to work.”
Suarez will have crew chief Billy Scott, who guided Kurt Busch to one victory and nearly a spot in the championship round. He will get to test with the team later this week at a Goodyear tire test at Auto Club Speedway in California.
That will be his only time in the car before Feb. 9, when practice begins at Daytona. He will also compete in the Race of Champions, Jan. 19-20 in Mexico City.
Suarez knows there are people who were not impressed with his first two Cup seasons, but he is confident in his ability to win races with SHR.
“I know what I can do,” Suarez said. “I know that everything I have done, nobody has given to me. … For all those people that have doubts, the results are going to talk for themselves — we’ll see how that will work out.”