The No. 19 Toyota visited Victory Lane the last time the NASCAR Cup Series ran at Texas Motor Speedway.
Carl Edwards manned that car, winning for the fourth time at the track. But Edwards abruptly walked away from his racing career in the offseason.
Joe Gibbs Racing then turned in house to promising youngster Daniel Suarez, the reigning Xfinity Series champion, to handle the driving duties this season, even though he had never run a Cup race in his career.
Suarez, 25, has held his own in the No. 19 car, posting consecutive seventh-place finishes the past two weeks at Phoenix and Fontana. But, if adjusting to a new series with the top drivers in the sport wasn’t a big enough challenge, Suarez has been dealt another curveball.
His crew chief, Dave Rogers, has taken an indefinite personal leave. JGR has promoted Suarez’s crew chief during his championship season, Scott Graves, to the position and Suarez is hopeful to make it as seamless as possible.
“It was a hard week for the whole organization, but luckily Joe Gibbs is a family,” Suarez said. “Everyone supports each other very well. [Rogers] is still part of the team even when he’s not here with us right now. He’s still in communication with all of us.
“Luckily we got Scott. With Scott, he’s a great crew chief. We won a championship together. We know each other very well.”
JGR veteran driver Kyle Busch acknowledged there could be a learning curve for his teammates, saying it could take “at least a month” until Graves is fully up to speed.
But Suarez is cautiously optimistic that it doesn’t take that long. He’d love to add a third consecutive top-10 run Sunday in the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway, and carry that momentum into Texas Motor Speedway next weekend.
Suarez has done well in Texas in a brief period, qualifying fifth or better in all four of his Xfinity Series starts with two top-10 runs. He came in fifth in last fall’s Xfinity race.
Like every driver, though, Suarez isn’t putting too much stock into his previous success at the track. TMS repaved and reprofiled its surface this offseason, and it remains to be seen how drivers will adjust to the new configuration.
“It’s a new Texas. It doesn’t matter what happened in the past because it’s kind of like we’re starting over,” Suarez said. “But I’m looking forward to getting to know this place from zero and trying to get adapted to a new Texas Motor Speedway. Overall, Texas is a track I really like a lot.”
NASCAR and TMS would love to see Suarez become a staple contender there, too.
Suarez is from Monterrey, Mexico, and the sport is trying to broaden its fan base. The Dallas-Fort Worth market has a strong Hispanic population, a demographic Suarez could reach, much as the Dallas Cowboys have done.
Suarez understands this. He grew up a Cowboys fan and has a contingent of family and friends who make the trek to TMS whenever the NASCAR circuit is in town.
“It’s one of the races where they can leave Saturday, get there Saturday night and watch the race on Sunday,” Suarez said.
TMS president Eddie Gossage would like to see that catch on even more.
“The Cowboys have done a tremendous job,” Gossage said. “If you ever look around at a Cowboys game, you’ll see a huge Hispanic following. With Daniel’s ethnicity, for him to have success is only going to make the job easier.
“But Daniel Suarez is here firstly — and solely really — because of his talent. The fact that he’s Hispanic is just an added plus. If he can draw more Hispanic fans to the sport, everybody wins with that. That’s a good thing. But the bottom line is he can drive the wheels off a race car.”