With one race remaining in the NASCAR Sprint Cup “Regular Season” the strategy for Daniel Suárez and Trackhouse is very simple.
Just win to get into the playoffs.
Don’t worry about the points, because at 43 below the cut line, currently held by Bubba Wallace of 23XI, it’s too late to get in on points, so focus on doing what it takes to win Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
That may sound simple, but it’s difficult to achieve.
Trackhouse owner Justin Marks recalls a similar position during the first year for the team.
“We were in this position in 2021 with Daniel and he was making a pass for the lead coming to the white flag and he got turned by another car and was in a wreck,” Marks recalled. “As a team, it was pretty crushing.”
Both Trackhouse drivers made the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs in 2022 including Ross Chastain in the No. 1 Chevrolet and Suárez in the No. 99 Chevrolet.
But in 2021, Trackhouse was still operating as a single-car team. At the end of June in that year, Marks and partner Pitbull purchased Chip Ganassi Racing and would expand to a two-car operation in 2022 with the addition of Chastain, who was one of Ganassi’s drivers.
As the NASCAR Cup Series regular season finale came to its dramatic conclusion, Suárez was in a perfect position to win the race. He successfully separated the leaders of the race and had the momentum to drive up through the field thanks to a big push from behind by Kurt Busch.
“In 2021, Daniel set up everything right in the last three laps to be in position to win that race,” Marks recalled. “But this sport and everyone in it are really good at managing expectations. Everybody goes into Daytona knowing all of the potential outcomes and do a good job of not reacting to that.
“We were sitting on the pit box, and nobody moved a muscle or reacted at all until just a few seconds before he pulled out to make that move because you are always waiting on something to happen.”
Unfortunately, what happened was Suarez’s car was turned around from contact from another car that often determines the outcome of a “restrictor plate” race at Daytona or Talladega.
Instead of winning the race and getting into the NASCAR Playoffs, Suárez was involved in the nine-car crash in Turn 3 and finished 19th.
Ryan Blaney of Team Penske won the race, but Trackhouse went to work to get both Suárez and Chastain into the NASCAR Playoffs in 2022 by winning races.
Chastain has already qualified for the NASCAR Playoffs with his dramatic win at Nashville Superspeedway in June.
The pressure is off Chastain, but he will still be part of the battle on Saturday night as Trackhouse tries to get a race victory for Suárez.
"Well, it's going to be an exciting weekend for sure,” Chastain said. “Everyone has a little bit different agenda and we're all competitors so I'm sure we'll keep it interesting. Things can change so quickly at the superspeedways and so much is out of your control.
“I want to win but overall, I want it to be a good weekend for Trackhouse and for Daniel to make it in the playoffs. It’s good for everyone at our team and our partners to have both cars in the playoffs.”
Even a driver locked into the Playoffs can get involved in another driver’s overly aggressive moves at the end at Daytona. Even a driver minding his own business can get sucked into what is known as “The Big One.”
"There's definitely different approaches when it comes to drivers just trying to survive and being there at the end of the prescribed laps, or if you actually want to go race,” Chastain said. “Time will tell on how it’s going to work out for everyone."
The pressure point will come Saturday night, and Suárez will be a key part of that storyline as the 16-driver field for the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs will be determined.
The final position remains available. If a driver that hasn’t won a race yet wins on Saturday night, they will be locked in, and Wallace will be out.
That is the only path for Suárez.
“It’s a really interesting storyline to follow that night because you have these guys trying to get in,” Marks said. “I don’t think the race changes that much; I think the last 10 laps change a lot. It all depends on who is out front. If you have three or four guys that are in out front that can play some defense and help a teammate, you are really reacting on the fly. It’s something almost impossible to plan for.
“I’m here for all the drama of it.”
There is plenty of drama, but that will reach its dramatic crescendo late in the race, not early in the event.
“For Daniel, it’s not like on Lap 20 he would make a move he normally wouldn’t make,” Marks continued. “That race is about putting yourself in position so that when the pay window opens at the end of the race, that is when everybody goes. I think you will see some potentially pretty wild stuff.
“You are going to have to be lucky.
“That remains a very high priority right now, to get Daniel Suárez in the Playoffs. Daytona is always one of those where anybody can win. All hope is not lost by any stretch of the imagination.
“We are focused really hard on giving Daniel and Travis Mack all the tools they need to be successful.”
Suárez welcomes the pressure.
“I love being in these kinds of scenarios,” Suárez said. “I feel like as a race car driver and as an athlete, you really live for moments like this. You don’t get to experience moments like this all the time. And when you do experience these moments, I feel like that’s really when you get to show what you’re built of.
“In reality, I have to control what I can control. I can only control one race car and that’s the No. 99.
“I’m not the kind of driver that wishes something bad to happen. So, I’m going to control what I can control and do the best I can.
“This weekend, the goal is to win the race. At Daytona, anything can happen. Somebody else can make a mistake in front of me and that’s it. So those are things that, unfortunately, I cannot control.
“But there are a lot of things that I can control this weekend and I will try my best to put ourselves in a very good spot.”
Trackhouse has been a major storyline throughout the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, from the team’s great beginning to Chastain’s victory at Nashville, and Shane van Gisbergen’s PROJECT91 victory in the epic Grant Park 220 Chicago Street on July 2.
Trackhouse finds a way to master the moment, and the moment for Suárez could come Saturday night at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway.
When Marks assesses the 2023 season, he sees much to be proud.
“I think we set a pretty high bar last year,” Marks said. “It was a stellar year for the company. Now, everyone is getting more used to these race cars. The teams that have a lot of the depth and engineering resources are the ones finding their way right now. We are just a little behind where we were last year.
“We have great people. At this point, it’s how do we keep up? How do we audit our processes and our relationship with Chevrolet and how we work in the company to continue to advance like other teams are advancing?
“We have wins on the board. We have had some really great races this year. We have more competition. RFK is coming and Ford and Toyota are both challenging Chevrolet right now. This is part of the grind of year in and year out, trying to keep up with the competition.”
Outside of the Trackhouse race shop in Concord, North Carolina is a 235-foot section of pavement that has been painted and marked as “235 Feet.”
That is the margin of distance between Team Penske’s Joey Logano winning the NASCAR Championship Race at Phoenix and Chastain in second place.
It was Marks’ challenge to the team to do whatever it takes to make up the 235 to win the championship in 2023.
As Playoffs begin, when does 235 feet become top of mind?
“We will have that discussion the week after Daytona,” Marks said. “You can’t change what put you in position to be a playoff team in the first place. It’s the aggregate of the small things. What the discussion becomes is how do we optimize our workflow and how do we make sure our communication is where it needs to be and looking at all the data that we get from Chevrolet in the right way?
“I don’t think a lot changes. Every phase of the playoffs, you look at those groups of tracks, those three tracks, and build a strategy around how to approach those three weeks to put you in the best position to move on.
“I think the 1 team can start thinking about it now, but for the 99 team, it’s all about getting there.”