Daniel Suarez must fight for his spot in Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 09: Daniel Suarez, driver of the #96 Toyota Certified Used Vehicles Toyota, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series 62nd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 09, 2020, in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Daniel Suarez is living proof that the best-laid plans can sometimes go awry.

After losing his ride at Stewart-Haas Racing, Suarez signed on with Gaunt Brothers Racing for the 2020 season. The Mexican driver opted to forego the spot he had earned in Sunday’s Busch Clash at Daytona to concentrate on his Daytona 500 effort.

The strategy didn’t work. Suarez was 36th among 43 drivers and failed to secure one of two spots available to non-chartered cars on speed. Those positions went to Justin Haley and Brendan Gaughan who were 31st and 33rd fastest, respectively.

Accordingly, Suarez will have to race his way into the Great American race in the first of two Bluegreen Vacations Duels on Thursday night (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). That means he’ll have to beat Haley, Reed Sorenson (34th qualifier) and Chad Finchum (41st) if he hopes to race next Sunday.

“We have to race,” Suarez said. “We have to race hard. We knew that we would have a lot of challenges and that we didn’t also have the raw speed, but I know what I can do. I just have to go out there Thursday and get it done.”

Suarez and the Gaunt team had made the decision to skip the Clash before arriving at Daytona. But they were surprised in Saturday’s two practice sessions that the No. 96 Toyota wasn’t up to speed in single-car runs—though the car was able to keep up in the draft with the other Toyotas.

“That was really the main goal, to focus on the Daytona 500 car,” Suarez said of the decision not to race in the Clash. “Obviously, we just didn’t do enough of a good job, but we have to push hard, and we have to keep working and try to keep up. I know that… obviously, we all know that the car doesn’t have the raw speed that we were expecting. We all were pretty shocked (Saturday) to see that, but I know what I can do, and I know that I’m fast. I think we’ll be in good shape on Thursday. We just have to stay out of trouble.”