DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — For the first time in his NASCAR Cup Series career, a start in Sunday‘s Daytona 500 is not guaranteed for Daniel Suarez.
The driver of the No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota needs to battle his way into “The Great American Race” through one of two Thursday‘s Bluegreen Vacations Duel races at Daytona International Speedway (7 p.m. ET on FS1/FOX Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). There are two spots left in the 40-driver Daytona 500 field. Five drivers, though, are looking to fill those vacancies.
“I feel like if I can do my job, I don‘t have to kill myself to make it happen,” Suarez said Wednesday at the Daytona 500 Media Day. “I feel like I just have to not beat myself up.”
Suarez really only has to finish better than two non-qualified drivers in Duel 1, which features 22 entries overall. His competitors are Reed Sorenson and Chad Finchum. The others — J.J. Yeley and Timmy Hill — are in Duel 2.
The reason these drivers have to earn their spot in the Daytona 500 is because their teams do not have a Charter; they‘re considered Open. Charter teams are locked into the season opener regardless of qualifying results or finish position in Duel races, and there are 36 Charter teams this year.
Suarez and Gaunt Brothers apparently tried to purchase a Charter prior to the start of the 2020 season.
“We walked around Walmart several times, and we didn‘t find anything,” Suarez said jokingly. “No, but there‘s nothing for sale. … That‘s how it works. Hopefully we can find the right one.”
The other way to secure a Daytona 500 bid was through qualifying last Sunday. That‘s how Justin Haley and Brendan Gaughan advanced. They were the fastest Open cars.
Haley qualified 31st at 190.018 mph, while Gaughan was 33rd at 188.945 mph. Suarez was then 36th at 185.479 mph.
For perspective: Polesitter Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was 194.582 mph.
“I feel like actually my car was pretty sporty in the draft” Suarez said. “We have an engine that‘s just as good as any other Toyota out there. The problem is we don‘t have the car, the body. The chassis is slow. It‘s not the newest and greatest car. But when we‘re in the draft, we‘re as good as anyone.”
This is Suarez‘s first season with Gaunt Brothers. He spent 2019 with Stewart-Haas Racing, his only season there, in the No. 41 Ford. Rookie Cole Custer now has that ride.
This is not, however, Suarez‘s first time in a Toyota. He drove one with Joe Gibbs Racing at the start of his career — the 2017-18 seasons.
There will be three non-Open drivers in Toyotas also on track with Suarez for Duel 1: Joe Gibbs Racing‘s Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr., along with Leavine Family Racing‘s Christopher Bell. Ideally, for Suarez, they can help with drafting.
“They won‘t slow down and look for me to push,” Suarez said. “Nobody would do that. I wouldn‘t do that. But if they can push me or push a Toyota, they‘re going to push me rather than another manufacturer.”
Suarez has six Daytona starts under his belt, five of which ended in DNFs due to crashes. His 31.8 average finish is highlighted by a 17th-place run in the 2017 summer race.
A trip to Victory Lane is the ultimate goal, but Suarez needs to first be in contention for even a chance at the win.
“If I go down as a driver, the whole team goes down with me,” Suarez said. “If I‘m able to keep everyone up, and we‘re able to get the right people and build in the right direction, we‘re going to have something very special.”