They say dirt is a great equalizer, similar in nature to a superspeedway. Well, when the NASCAR Cup Series races on dirt for the first time in over 50 years, the guys with past dirt experience could have a distinct advantage. But, in Monday’s rain delayed Cup race at the Bristol (Tenn) Motor Speedway, the dirt guys weren’t the ones fighting for the top spot for much of the race.
In fact, one driver having a career day has had no past dirt experience. Daniel Suarez didn’t grow up on dirt tracks. Prior to 2021, he had never raced on one. That’s why it was so surprising to see him leading 58 laps and battling for a victory in his No. 99 Chevrolet.
Suarez, would finish fourth when it was all said and done.
“I want to be very honest with you, I love racing at Bristol. Is one of my favorite racetracks,” Suarez said after his first top five finish in two seasons. “When they announced we’re going to be coming here with dirt in one of the races, I wasn’t too sure about it because I never been on dirt in my life. In Mexico, we don’t have ovals in dirt, at least as I know.”
Suarez, said he’s just very, very proud of his team that they brought a very fast car and also that he was able to learn as he went.
“It was a challenge,” Suarez continued. “Last probably five days ago was my first time ever on a dirt car. It was a lot of fun. I really enjoy a lot. I enjoy a lot, as well, the entire weekend.
“Overall I felt that we’re very close. That always bring a smile to my face. But it wasn’t close enough. So we have to keep working. Now I’m excited actually that we’re going to come back next year with another shot to race and compete for the win in Bristol on dirt.”
With this being a dirt race though, how much can Suarez and his team take from this and apply to the rest of the season?
“Yeah, it was already a good day for us, running up front, leading laps, and staying in the top 10, top 5 the entire race,” he said.
“But if you look at it, last week we were very similar. I mean, we didn’t lead laps, but I made a mistake in the last pit stop, and that took away our chance to finish either fifth or sixth.
“It’s the second week in a row that we’ve been running strong. I don’t see this as, okay, we run good because we’re on dirt. I feel like everyone at Trackhouse Racing has done an incredible job to work hard on these cars, get them better. Really a lot of support from RCR, engines and chassis and everything. I feel like we still a long ways to go from where we want to be, but we’re heading the right direction.
“Hopefully we can compete in the top 10, top 5 like we’ve been doing the last couple weeks on a weekly basis. Eventually we’re going to get a trophy.”
Suarez told me a few weeks ago that with a new team with no previous notes as well as no practice at their disposal, that they’re just guessing heading to race tracks. But, with performances like this, that notebook is building in a positive direction and one that could make this new team a contender really soon.
In terms of Monday’s race, Suarez said it was around Lap 50 to 100 for when he finally got comfortable.
“I felt like, okay, the car is actually pretty good, I can make some moves,” he said. “We were getting to a top 10. I was still passing cars.”
He passed Martin Truex Jr. for the lead on Lap 134. It was at that point that the realization came that he could actually win this race. But, it wasn’t long after that he realized his inexperience on dirt is what would also keep it out of victory lane though too.
“Obviously when I went into the lead, I say maybe we can have a shot to win this thing,” said Suarez. “Really, the track kept changing. That’s probably where I lacked some of the experience on dirt. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to ask for in the last 50 laps. I knew they were putting a lot of water on the racetrack, but I had no idea what to change.
“I even asked my crew chief, Travis, Hey, should we make an adjustment too tight, too loose? He said, I have no idea (laughter).
“We were just hoping for the best. Unfortunately didn’t work out. Overall on and off it was a very, very solid day. We’re back running up front for two weeks in a row. That’s something to be proud of.
“We really can put our arms down, keep working, keep building for after the break.”
In terms of what he could have done differently in the end after being passed by Joey Logano on Lap 192 and then fading from second to fourth, he said it was all in the race track.
“The racetrack changed completely,” he said. “I was actually talking to Denny about it. They did a lot of things to the racetrack, to some cars it came to them, some others they lost the balance a little bit. Unfortunately I was one of those that lost the balance a little bit. For some reason, my rear grip wasn’t the same. I felt that my car was capable to challenge for the race lead before that. I kind of like had a plan in my mind.
“The last 50 laps for some reason I lost that grip. I just couldn’t do much about it. From being a first- or second-place car, I became a fifth- to fourth-place car. That’s exactly where we ended.
“It’s a learning curve. Like I said, I’m still learning about all this dirt racing. My first time was actually just five days ago. I wasn’t expecting the racetrack to change that much, but it did. That’s something I have to keep in mind for next year.”