The NASCAR Cup Series schedule stretches across the country and across a landscape of different racetracks – superspeedways, short tracks, intermediate tracks, street courses and road courses.
For many drivers, adjusting to the intricacies and subtleties of road courses is a major challenge. In particular, drivers who learned the trade on short oval tracks find that road course racing is an entirely different animal, and some never really adjust to the differences.
Daniel Suarez is among those who has figured out the headaches associated with road course racing and has been able to turn the annoyances into positives.
Suarez returns to COTA in the Freeway Insurance 99 car this weekend, a race that proved he has road courses locked down even if it got away from him. He checked all the marks last June at Sonoma Raceway, scoring his first Cup victory on the road.
That day in California wine country brought back memories of the many laps Suarez made as a kid racing go-karts in his home country of Mexico. Success in karting – he won the 2007 national karting championship – led Suarez into stock car racing and eventually to the NASCAR Mexico Series, where he raced on both ovals and road courses.
“Practically all of the races that I ran in Mexico, growing up in go-karts, were road courses,” Suarez said. “I think that’s what helped me have a good foundation – go-karts on road courses. Then as I grew in several different categories, I went to the NASCAR Mexico Series, and that’s a combination of ovals and road courses -- more road courses than ovals.”
Suarez jumped onto road courses in the United States and made steady gains.
“Road courses in general aren’t easy,” he said. “It was obviously a process. I think the most difficult was getting used to the car because the weight of a go-kart versus that of a race car is like night and day. It’s completely different. So it was a big adjustment. I consider my driving style good for road courses; however, I think I can be better. I think we still have a lot of work to do to keep winning races.”
Trackhouse Racing owner Justin Marks knows a thing or two (actually much more) about road course racing. He has driven in road course events across the country and says learning each track and the key spots on each track that can be most productive is important.
“It’s certainly a process,” Marks said. “You’re really driving at the limit of the tire, and it’s a very car-placement important type of track. Lines are important, and you’re using curbs. You have to set up right for the next corner.
“Passing is very different at a road course than on an oval. These cars weigh 3,400 pounds, and there’s not a lot of tire under them. So you’re doing a lot of tire management. The psychological approach is somewhat similar to short track racing in that you really have to get a flow and a cadence going and manage your tire wear. How you race is different. How you pass is different.”
And, Marks said, you sometimes have to be a bit devious.
“I was racing with a guy behind me who was only really better than me in one corner,” he said. “I purposely started braking early to make him think that I wasn’t very good in that corner. Then when he pulled out to pass I went all the way down to my brake zone and he judged off me and went flying off the track, and I was good. That kind of stuff you get to work with.
“Then, when you get to racing, you start to get creative. If you have to brake deeper to be able to make passes, then that’s when the dance of racing on the road courses happens.”
When Suarez broke through at Sonoma, he broke through in a big way and with heavy emphasis. He led the final 26 laps of the race and won by more than three seconds.
“Sonoma was a very well-executed race,” Suarez said. “We did everything well -- the pit stops, the strategy was excellent, the car was really fast. I think we had one of the best cars; however, I don’t think we had THE best car. I think we were probably one of the top-three cars, but the car was really good on the long runs, and that helped us a lot. At the end, we had a long run and that helped us. I think the way I was driving and the way the car was set up worked on the long runs.
“After five or six laps the car was a rocketship, and that helped us a lot. But, in general, I think we had a really good day, a clean day, and that helped us win Sonoma. Yes, it looked easy, but it wasn’t. There were a lot of things that had to work for us to lead so many laps and allow us to have that advantage of leading by several seconds.
“On the last laps I was taking as much care of my tires as I could. I was only pushing at 90 to 92% because I was preparing in case there was a yellow flag thrown. I knew that if there was a caution, we weren’t going to be able to pit. So I was preparing myself for that. I truly believe that my lead could have been much bigger if I hadn’t worried or thought about that potential caution. As soon as it was the white flag, I knew it was ours.”
It was a smart move for Suarez. Contact in the closing laps often produces overtime, and saving some tire strength for that possibility is a good idea.
“You’re always thinking about a green-white-checkered and things getting crazy and nutty and you get hit and knocked off the road,” Marks said. “But in those final laps, it just felt like it was Daniel’s day.
“He was really strong all day (leading 47 laps). Sonoma is a difficult place to pass. He had to do a good job of maintaining. He had to hold the 17 (Chris Buescher) off for a couple of restarts. I knew if he could do that and pull that five-to-seven-car-length advantage, he would be fine. He’s so focused and prepared that he wasn’t going to make a mistake.”
Marks said he wasn’t surprised when Suarez rolled into victory lane at Sonoma.
“Daniel had had some really good runs, and I really thought there was a great opportunity for him to win,” he said. “He had been really good at road courses since we picked him up.
“The COTA race (ironically won by Ross Chastain, Daniel’s teammate) was one that I believe got away from Daniel. He had the dominant car in that race. He got off strategy, and he got spun out. We had some power steering problems. He qualified within one-10th of a second of the pole. We won the first stage.”
Suarez had shown his best road-course strength at Watkins Glen International in New York with a pair of top-five finishes prior to the Sonoma win. But everything came together in California.
Suarez is a solid, well-rounded driver who has many wins ahead, Marks said.
“I think he’s a very, very good driver,” Marks said. “He’s underrated on superspeedways. He’s a very calculating, cerebral, intelligent racer at Daytona and Talladega. I think he’s a great intermediate driver. He’s very, very intelligent, and he’s always adapting to situations. I think he has big wins coming.”