DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Daniel Suarez knows that the pressure is on during Thursday night’s Bluegreen Vacations Duels at Daytona Int’l Speedway, but he’s trying not to think about it too much.
Suarez is one of five Open drivers, racing for non-chartered teams, who are looking to race into Sunday’s 62nd annual Daytona 500. He’ll pilot the No. 96 Toyota Camry for Gaunt Brothers Racing, starting 19th in the first 60-lap, 150-mile Duel event.
It’s the first time the Mexican-born driver has not been locked into The Great American Race, but interestingly enough, Suarez is drawing on some past experiences to help his mindset this week.
He looks back on the 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series finale at Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway, for guidance and inspiration in how to mentally prepare for what he’ll face on Thursday night.
“I’ve been having flashbacks actually, from 2016, when I had to go and race for the championship in Homestead. I feel like it’s similar in a way, right?” Suarez told reporters during Daytona 500 Media Day. “You have to beat three guys. Here, it’s a similar mindset that you have to have.
“You have to go out there and execute, (with) no mistakes, (and) control what you can control,” he added. “If you can do that, it’s likely you’ll end up where you want to be.”
Suarez will have to beat Justin Haley – who is already locked into the Daytona 500 field on speed – as well as Reed Sorenson and Chad Finchum, in order to secure his place in The Great American Race.
All four start 16th or worse in the first Duel, but Suarez believes it will take a balance of patience and aggression to work his way forward into a position to make the Daytona 500.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” admitted Suarez when asked how aggressive he thinks he’ll have to be on Thursday night. “I will have to figure that out as I’m on the race track, obviously. The first half of the race will be just being aggressive, but not too crazy. After the pit stop, then it’s go time.”
Despite this year being the first that Suarez has not had a guaranteed starting position in NASCAR’s biggest event, the 28-year-old was calm and smiling when speaking to reporters on Wednesday afternoon.
He did say, however, that there are still some nerves that come with the situation he’s in.
“I feel a little pressure, but not that much,” Suarez said. “I have to control what I can control and do my job. It’s very unfortunate, the charter situation, but that’s the way it works.
“We’ve been in the market a couple months to buy one, but there is not one for sale that I know of. We went to Wal‑Mart seven times and didn’t find anything,” he added with a laugh.
The good news for Suarez? He’ll have three Toyota stablemates in the first Duel race on Thursday, with Denny Hamlin rolling off third, rookie Christopher Bell starting fifth and Martin Truex Jr. gridding 11th.
However, Suarez said a specific plan hasn’t been discussed just yet, as far as whether he’ll work with his Toyota brethren if the opportunity arises.
“We have a plan,” he noted. “We kind of know what we’re going to do and how we’re going to expect this. We just have to execute. That’s the key.
“If the opportunity presents itself (for a Toyota to push), then yes, but they won’t slow down and look for me (in order) to push,” Suarez continued. “Nobody would do that. I wouldn’t do that. But if they can push me or push a Toyota, they’re going to push me, (rather) than another manufacturer. … It’s not a big deal, though. I think we are in an OK position. We just have to be smart, execute and have fun.”
If he can race his way into the Daytona 500, it will be Suarez’s fourth appearance in The Great American Race, and Suarez said in that case, Sunday may well be the most meaningful Daytona 500 he’ll make.
“Probably it will mean more, yes,” Suarez affirmed to SPEED SPORT. “The Daytona 500 is going to mean a lot if I can actually win it. Hopefully we can give ourselves a shot.”