Daniel Suarez has received several kicks in the gut in the last few years (some would say the kicks have hit lower on his body), and certainly as many as any other NASCAR Cup Series driver.
So when talking about the nerves Thursday night and handling what will be the most excruciating race of his NASCAR Cup Series career, he at least has some perspective.
Not knowing until December 2018 that he would have a ride for 2019, then being fired for the second time in two years and not knowing until about a month ago that he would have a ride for this year, the anxiety of trying to race his way into the Daytona 500 will be just another hill to climb.
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“I’ve been through a lot the last couple of years,” Suarez said. “This is just one more thing. It’s a lot of work, a lot of pressure. But we’ll be good. I’ve been in these situations many times in the past, and I know how to handle these situations.
“I have to control what I can control and do the best with that.”
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) January 29, 2020
Actually, Suarez hasn’t faced this type of pressure, the pressure to make the Daytona 500. His other two Daytona 500 starts didn’t require him to race his way into the field.
Suarez is among five drivers vying for the final two spots on the Daytona 500 grid when the 150-mile qualifying races run Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway (FS1 coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET).
The way the 40-car Daytona 500 field is set is the 36 drivers in cars with NASCAR charters – NASCAR’s version of a franchise – are in the race. The highest-finishing “open” driver in each of the two 60-lap races Thursday earns a spot, with the final two spots determined by the fastest in qualifying speed from this past Sunday.
Justin Haley and Brendan Gaughan posted the two fastest speeds in the single-car runs Sunday, so they know they can fall back on those to make the field. The result: Don’t expect them to do anything remotely dicey in the 60-lap races.
Brendan Gaughan’s positivity is unmatched. pic.twitter.com/2ec5N35sVN
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) February 13, 2020
That means that most likely the top finisher in the first duel among Suarez, Reed Sorenson and Chad Finchum will make the Daytona 500 field, with the final spot coming down to Timmy Hill or JJ Yeley in the second duel. If Haley or Gaughan finish as the top open car in his duel, then Sorenson gets a spot on speed. If both Haley and Gaughan finish best in their duel, Sorenson and Hill fill the final two spots.
Suarez is the only driver among those seven who competed full time in the series last year, having finished a career-best 17th in the standings driving for Stewart-Haas Racing, his first year there after being replaced at Joe Gibbs Racing by Martin Truex Jr.
SHR, looking for the next Kevin Harvick and unsure of the reliability of the Suarez sponsorship, replaced him with Cole Custer, winner of seven Xfinity races and son of SHR executive Joe Custer, for 2020. Suarez scrambled and, with the help of a Toyota engine deal, was able to convince Gaunt Brothers Racing to shift from its part-time plans to a full-time operation.
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Gaunt Brothers has tripled its staff from about 10 to 30 people in the last month and has enough cars prepared to make it through the three-race West Coast swing that follows Daytona.
The team – the only committed full-time open team for the season — has the funding to continue racing even without making the Daytona 500, but not racing Sunday certainly would be a blow to the team psyche. Last year, Parker Kligerman faced a similar situation and put the No. 96 into the 500.