Daniel Suarez said on Thursday that “there are a lot of things that are not positive about this year.” While that might seem a statement of the obvious given how the global pandemic that has changed the American sports landscape, in this case it is also connected to what is going on with his Gaunt Brothers Racing team.
Suarez is 31st in the point standings. Since missing the season-opening Daytona 500, however, the No. 96 Toyota team has completed 99 percent of the laps. Twice Suarez has finished a season-best 18th (at Bristol and Kansas), and he’s been on the lead lap at the end of four of the 19 races he’s run.
Those statistics are easy to see. But what isn’t going to show up on a result sheet is the continuing battle within Gaunt Brothers — which is running its first full-time season this year — to build its program, for which the pandemic has been a cruel twist.
“(It) changed a lot of things in our team, in the way we were planning things and were supposed to get some things, cars, and different kinds of competition stuff,” said Suarez. “I feel like, on one side, we’re extremely fortunate to have amazing sponsors, and they have been extremely helpful to our team.
“If you asked any owner out there to start racing in a year like this year has been so far, they would say, ‘Hell no. That’s no way to run,’ because you don’t have track time, you can’t really add new sponsors because everything is on hold.”
Gaunt Brothers does not have a technical alliance, and its support from Toyota covers engines and engineering support. Becoming a full-time team wasn’t a reality until mid-January, and by that point, trying to recruit top people and put the right people in the right places was a difficult task.
For this group, going from finishing 30th one weekend to 28th the next is progress. And, it’s important to remember, Gaunt Brothers is doing it with older cars. Much older. Not one year, or two, but eight-year-old cars.
“The plan at this point (in the season) was to run better than what we’re running right now, and a lot of things have changed,” said Suarez. “We keep working on trying to get our cars better, but the reality is that we still have older cars and older equipment than most of the competition, so we are over-performing every single week. We’ve had six top-25s this season, which is extremely good for our team. I don’t like it, but it’s extremely good for our team.
“But, the raw speed of the car is just not there. We are working extremely hard; we have meetings every week. We are trying to maximize what we have, but we know that there is going to be a limit and we’re going to have to get better equipment — that’s part of the process we’re on. Again, going back to the pandemic, that has slowed down so many different things. We have to be patient. I have to keep doing my job and trying to keep pushing the team hard and trying to keep improving the whole team and try to be more prepared as the year goes on.”
Suarez is in an interesting position this year. A former Xfinity Series champion, he was released from Joe Gibbs Racing after the ’18 season to make room for Martin Truex Jr. Then, after having a career-year with Stewart-Haas Racing in ‘19, he was released from that ride and replaced by Cole Custer. Critics might say Suarez did nothing worthy to keep his previous jobs.
With Gaunt Brothers, he is out of the spotlight, away from the constant pressure of having to perform at a high level while being compared to teammates. Being able to mentally regroup can be a good thing, Suarez admitted, although he feels as strong, if not stronger this year than any other. He’s going to need to be in order to get through a year that hasn’t had many good things about it and reach the level of success he believes is possible with Gaunt Brothers.
“Every year in the Cup Series brings a new lesson,” Suarez said. “I have learned so many different things in the Cup Series, and I know what it takes to be successful at this level. We just have to put all the pieces together. People are extremely important. Sometimes — I can tell you — it doesn’t matter what team you’re with. It’s all about people — having the right people working with you, the right head of administration pulling for you in the right direction — and I’m extremely fortunate to have Marty Gaunt and support from Toyota. Great sponsors.
“My goal is to build this team and make it competitive, and eventually a winning team. I believe I can do that. With the experience I’ve had in the past, I know what I have to do and what it will take to bring that team to that level. Something extremely important is to have good manufacturer support, and Toyota has been nothing but supportive of this program. If it weren’t for them, we probably wouldn’t be here. So, just very fortunate for the support from the sponsors, Toyota and Marty.”