The good news for Daniel Suarez and Trackhouse Racing is they have the pace. Next for the first-year team is a little luck and executing clean races to turn speed into results.
Look at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Suarez was sixth-fastest in practice and qualified ninth for the Coca-Cola 600. Granted, there have only been three qualifying sessions held this season, it gave the team its best starting spot of the season. But after running inside the top 10 during the first stage, a flat tire in the second stage set Suarez back two laps, and cautions never fell his way to allow for a full recovery.
Despite running top-five lap times by the end of the night, Suarez finished 15th. It was his eighth top-20 finish of the season. For team owner Justin Marks, finish aside, the overall effort should serve as another reason why he’s been pleased with the foundation being built by the No. 99 crew.
“Given what we’re up against as a new team in the sport and in an era where we don’t have practice and qualifying, we can’t really work on our cars and learn with such limited track time, I’m really happy with where we’re at,” Marks told RACER.
“We don’t have a notebook, we don’t have historical precedent. We can’t go back through the years and talk about things we’ve done before. So when we go to some of these places, we unload, take the green flag, race, and don’t know what we got until we’re 10 laps into the race.
“Sometimes it’s bad. Darlington was really tough. Vegas was tough. But sometimes it’s good. We’re good (at Charlotte). We were really good at Atlanta. We were good at Dover. We’ve had some races where we’ve been really good. If it takes most new teams, 10 races to get going in normal times when they have practice and qualifying, (for) us new teams… expand that over six months, because we have to do a whole race and we go, ‘Well, that didn’t work.’ Then we have to do a whole other race to try something new.”
While the team’s mile-and-a-half program has been lacking, Marks does believe Trackhouse is bringing “really good race cars” to the racetrack, solidifying the effort put in during the week with simulation and pouring through data. There is also the advantage of working closely with alliance partner Richard Childress Racing. ‘Close’ is an understatement, as Trackhouse is housed in the Childress shop and sees what its teammates are doing.
“On a day when we totally miss it, that we’re totally off, we’re still an outside shot at a top 20 team,” Marks said. “I’m proud of that. I’m proud of the effort that everybody’s put in. We’re all learning.”
At 23rd in the point standings, Suarez sits seven points behind Darrell Wallace Jr., who is also with a first-year team in 23XI Racing. Suarez is ahead of three Stewart-Haas Racing drivers in points and one of the JTG Daugherty Racing and Front Row Motorsports drivers.
From the beginning, Marks has felt all the pieces were in place for success. What has happened through the first three months of competition is “proof of concept.” Marks had a vision of how he wanted things to start for his organization, and part of that was spending a year or two learning the sport through a partner like Childress.
“That’s how you need to come in and set a foundation where you can really grow from for a long period of time, instead of coming in and spending all this money and trying to build our own engineering teams and go from the get-go, because I don’t have the capability of doing that,” said Marks.
“It’s actually less about the race cars and more about building culture and building our people. The equipment doesn’t matter, right? It’s just everything around the equipment that matters that’s going to stand the test of time.
“We could go race school buses, and if you have good people and good processes, then we’ll make that work. But it is gratifying because I took a lot of risk, and I worked really hard and believed in a vision, and to see it prove out on the racetrack, it’s like, ‘OK, it was the right decision. We’re doing things the right way.’ We just got to keep our heads down and just keep focused on the long-term plan.”
If Marks has been surprised by anything so far, it was Suarez’s second-place finish on the dirt at Bristol, but only in the sense that Suarez had never even seen a dirt track until the Tuesday of that week.
Speaking of Suarez, he’s the driver who is going to take Trackhouse to the promised land. Marks is sure of that. Any chance he’s given, Marks praises Suarez’s ability.
“He’s the driver of the 99,” said Marks. “I knew he was good. I raced against Daniel in 2016 when he won the (Xfinity) championship, and so I knew what kind of talent he had. But I’m a believer that Daniel is at the very sweet spot of his career right now, because he’s got 158 starts in the Cup Series; he’s got a lot of experience, he’s driven for the top teams, and then he spent a year being humbled and built that hunger inside him of I’ve got to get back, and I have to prove to everybody I belong here, and I can win these races.
“He has that chip on his shoulder coupled with that experience, and he’s so focused and so dedicated to his craft that we’ve got the best Daniel Suarez that he’s ever been. To me, that’s the biggest piece of the puzzle.”
As the second half of the season begins, don’t expect the goals to change at Trackhouse. Marks is the first to remind people how quickly racing can humble those who start to get confident.
“Our expectations haven’t changed because our expectations are not in where we finish in the racetrack,” he said. “Our expectation is in our execution and how we prepare the race cars and try to get better every weekend. The results will take care of themselves. I think the only thing that has changed is that everybody on this team knows that we have an opportunity to do something great if we do our jobs.
“I think there are some teams who think no matter how hard they work they’ll never get out of the spot they’re in. But we feel like we can do something really special if we work hard. But it doesn’t change our expectations; it doesn’t change how we work on the race car. We are just trying to give Daniel the best race car at Sonoma, and then at Texas, and then Nashville and so on. For a new team, that’s the most important thing to focus on. We’re probably a few years away from going ‘our goals this year are the playoffs,’ or ‘our goals this year are to get to Phoenix.’ We have to do all this fundamental work before we start thinking like that.”