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Daniel Suarez going full throttle to turn around his 2018 fortunes

Pat DeCola
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Daniel Suarez going full throttle to turn around his 2018 fortunes

LOUDON, N.H. Daniel Suarez isn’t quite where he thought he’d be. Just past the halfway mark of his sophomore Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series campaign, the Joe Gibbs Racing product sits 20th in points exactly where he finished a season ago on pace to fall below his 2017 figures in top 10s, …

LOUDON, N.H. — Daniel Suarez isn’t quite where he thought he’d be.

Just past the halfway mark of his sophomore Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series campaign, the Joe Gibbs Racing product sits 20th in points — exactly where he finished a season ago — on pace to fall below his 2017 figures in top 10s, laps led, average start and average finish. In his 19 starts this year, Suarez has finished off the lead lap in 10 of them — the same amount from his entire 36-race rookie season.

Thrust into the seat of his No. 19 JGR Toyota after the sudden departure of the incumbent Carl Edwards, Suarez performed admirably in his rookie season. He finished just shy of Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer and Erik Jones, and ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the standings.

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A step forward in Year Two — especially given how strong the organization is overall, and how fast his mentor and teammate, Kyle Busch, has shown to be this season — would have thought to be in store for the 26 year old.

It has yet to unfold, but hope remains.

With a shot at the final seven checkered flags of the regular season to clinch his spot in the 2018 NASCAR Playoffs, Suarez and Co. have more questions than answers at this point — the focus is clear, however, and dead-set on this one, tiny thing.

“We just need speed,” Suarez told NASCAR.com Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “We’re not exactly where we wanted to be. Our expectations were much higher than this, but this is where we’re at right now and we have to work from this.

” … When things are going well, everything is good. But when things are going bad is when the experience has to come to the table to put everything under control. I feel like this year so far, I have had rough weeks and I don‘t feel like I have done a good job moving forward quickly and fixing the problems quickly. But that’s part of racing.”

It’s also part of the process of a driver earning his stripes at the premier series level, arguably the most challenging undertaking across motorsports’ rich history.

Easy to forget, it is, how far Suarez has come in such a short amount of time — the Monterrey, Mexico, native was racing full-time in the NASCAR Peak Mexico Series and K&N Pro Series East a mere four years ago. For reference, Jones, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney were all racing full-time or close to it at the national series level that year, soaking in knowledge from veteran teammates and gleaning track data at the same venues they race at now.

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If anything, Suarez might actually be overperforming based on how traditional models of drivers with his experience level suggest he should be performing.

So, of course there are going to be bumps in the road. Teams seem to be favoring youth over experience to a degree these days, so there’s an understanding that dips like this and unmet personal expectations are going to happen.

What sets these drivers apart is how they respond.

“Last year, we had a lot of issues as well, a lot of changes, but even with that we were extremely strong and we never had the speed problem,” he said. “This year, we’ve had that problem sometimes. It’s just experience. I’ve never been in this situation before, where I’m struggling to find speed for so long. I’m sure I’m going to figure it out, it’s just going to take some time.

“It’s not one thing (we’re missing), it’s a combination of things. But we have a great group of guys and I feel like I can drive and I’m sure I can figure it out.”

Perhaps New Hampshire is where Suarez finds his magic: In two 2017 races at the “Magic Mile,” he placed sixth and eighth. Combine that with the fact that he’s finished outside the top 10 at Dover and Phoenix (NHMS’ two closest tracks in comparison) just once in six races at those two tracks, and everything certainly seems to be lining up as a striking opportunity for him.

Two weeks after seeing his teammate Jones unexpectedly break through for his first Monster Energy Series win in his 57th start, could Sunday mark Suarez’s signature moment, in his 56th?

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“New Hampshire actually is one of the few places on the NASCAR schedule that I’ve been racing in everything — K&N, Trucks, Xfinity, Cup. It’s one of the few race tracks that I have more than three years of experience at. I feel comfortable at this place for whatever reason. We had a strong performance here last year and we’re not expecting anything less on Sunday,” said Suarez, who will line up ninth in Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN/NBC Sports App, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

“There’s been a little bit of ups and downs lately so I feel like this place could be a good one to turn it around and start beating some people. … We just have to make it happen, have some fun and go out and do our thing.”

It’s one thing to be in a slump. It’s another to acknowledge it. But it’s only in the latter that changes can be sought, forward progress can be made and success can be celebrated.

Joe Gibbs Racing has the right driver to accomplish this.

“Mentally, actually, I feel like for whatever reason in my background I have had a lot of tough situations in my career very early when I was young. And I feel like I taught myself how to be in these situations, so mentally I feel like I’m very strong. I could say that I’m one of the strongest guys in the garage area, mentally. I just feel that way. It’s very hard for me to be down. I’m very confident in myself and what I’m capable of. And when I’m not, I know how to fix it.

“But sometimes in racing, things depend on a lot of factors. It’s not like biking, where it’s just one guy and that’s it,” Suarez said, gesturing at NBCSN’s television coverage of the Tour de France on the TV in his hauler.

“Sometimes you have to have confidence in yourself and be smart enough to manage everything else. I feel like I’ve been missing some of that, but I’ve been learning and I’m sure we’re going to be where we deserve to be, soon.”