Emotions flowed freely on the June afternoon in 2022 when the long journey that began for Daniel Suarez in Mexico ended in the hills of California wine country.
Suarez led 47 of 110 laps to win the 16th race of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season, scoring the first win of his Cup career on the road course at Sonoma Raceway.
There were tears inside and outside the race car as Suarez held off Chris Buescher to win by 3.8 seconds, solidifying Trackhouse Racing’s breakthrough season with the team’s third win of the year. For Suarez, who became the first Mexican driver to win in the Cup Series, it had been a tough road to get to the top. The start was his 195th in the series.
There were hugs all around as Suarez and his teammates celebrated in the immediate aftermath of the victory.
“It’s a day I’ll never forget,” Suarez said. “Nobody knows how much sweat, sacrifice and tears this has caused me. This whole time, I was always dreaming about winning in the Cup Series. I know we will have more wins in the future, but the first one will always be special. I’m trying to represent my community and my people the best way possible. I’m very, very happy to be doing what I’m doing. I’m very fortunate.”
Fortunate, too, is the Trackhouse team to be aligned with Suarez at this special juncture in his career.
“I think Daniel is a very special human, a very talented and prepared, dedicated, focused guy,” said team owner Justin Marks. “I think we can win a lot of races with Daniel and the 99 team.”
Ask about Suarez within the Trackhouse organization, and the most frequently used adjectives are dedicated and determined.
“I’ve never been around a driver who is more committed and dedicated.”Travis Mack
“His work ethic is unreal. It’s almost a little too much. I’ve been trying to lighten the mood a little bit, to make him laugh some in the race car instead of being so serious all the time."
“There was a race when he was leading. There was a red flag, and he was down and stressing about his restart and what he needed to do. I told him, ‘Hey, you’re leading the race and you’re still stressing about what to do. Enjoy the moment. You’re leading races, and you’re in the top series and you’re having fun. That’s what it’s all about.’ ”
The 2022 season was easily the best of Suarez’s six years in Cup. In addition to the landmark victory, he had career highs in top fives (six), top 10s (13) and laps led (280).
“By all metrics Daniel had the best year of his career last year,” Marks said. “What gives me a lot of confidence is that his preparation is on point and he has a lot of speed. If we didn’t have the power steering issue we had at Charlotte in the fall, the 99 is in the Round of 8 with a shot at making Phoenix (the championship race).
“Daniel and Travis are still learning each other and improving. I think Daniel is a very elite talent in the sport. It’s just such a new group of people around him. It’s going to take time to develop so they can get more consistent and take advantage of opportunities. He’s very much a championship caliber driver. It’s going to take more time for them working together and learning each other.”
Last year’s debut of the Next Gen car gave Suarez and Mack the opportunity to start the season on a relatively even basis with the rest of the Cup garage. With a totally new car to study, analyze and fine-tune, everybody started at zero.
“At the beginning of the year, we were trying to understand what Daniel wanted to feel in the car and understand the new car,” Mack said. “We came to a conclusion about certain things he wanted to feel in the car. Some of the early-season experiments were over, and we settled down on some basic setups.
“The new car definitely leveled the playing field. It all came down to working with your driver on the details and the work ethic he puts into the races each week. It comes down to all the little things and the people who are working on the cars instead of how much money you’re putting into the car.”
Entering a new season, Mack said his relationship with Suarez couldn’t be better.
“We’re good friends, and we tell each other like it is,” he said. “He trusts me. I trust him in the race car. We have 100 percent confidence in each other. We have a great partnership right now.”
Mack and Suarez expect big things in 2023.
“I think when you look back at last year’s results, there wasn’t a weekend that one of our cars wasn’t running in the top five or top 10,” Mack said. “We’ve got a lot of great notes to look back on. And Chevrolet has done a great job in the offseason. We have a huge notebook to go back to. I feel really confident going into the season.”
Suarez said the Sonoma victory confirmed the team’s direction and opened the door for wider success this year.
“The expectations are definitely higher than last year,” he said. “Last year, our team was working very hard. We didn’t know where that would take us, but we were hoping it would take us somewhere good. I feel like now it’s a little bit different because we know what we’re capable of doing. We know that we’re capable of winning, and we know that we’re capable of racing with some of the teams that have been doing this for a long time.
“We have to go out there and just continue to work because, in my opinion, if we do exactly the same thing that we did last year, it won’t be enough. Everyone is always evolving, so we have to continue to work and show up every weekend with the best that we can do.”
The off-season was special for one of the sport’s newest winners. Suarez got engaged to Julia Piquet and enjoyed some downtime with family and friends.
“I had the best off-season I’ve ever had,” he said. “Normally, in the past, I would be dealing with moving from one team to another. This off-season was the first time ever that I was really able to disconnect from racing for a few weeks, and that really made me recharge my batteries 110 percent. It was very, very good for me to have some time off. We came back excited and ready to go race again. Everyone in November is tired, very exhausted. So, for me, it was very important to be able to take that time.”
The effort to make advances during the new year — to move deeper into the playoffs — starts on day one.
“It starts in Daytona,” Mack said. “We need more stage points going into the playoffs so when we do have an issue we have a little bit of a buffer to lean on. We had a great run in the playoffs. This year we need to build momentum early in the year.”
Marks, who continues to work on strengthening the team’s foundation and spreading the Trackhouse identity to new frontiers, said 2023 should be another landmark year.
“I thought that all the ingredients were there to be able to accomplish what we did last year, but to be able to check so many boxes in the first year was a bit of a surprise,” he said. “But I certainly knew and continue to know that we have the capabilities of performing at a very high level. It’s been a short period of time in a way, but this has also been kind of 10 years in the making, with Ross’s journey, with Daniel’s journey, with my journey all sort of culminating in this opportunity that NASCAR provided with the new car. That all of us came together at this point in our careers was just sort of a perfect storm of opportunity.”