|PHOTO: Getty Images, MRN Radio|
After finishing just outside of Playoff contention with Stewart-Haas Racing, taking 17th in the standings, Suarez, the 2016 XFINITY Series Champion did not get a contract extension. His ride in the #41 Ford went to SHR’s own XFINITY Series challenger Cole Custer, who would join fellow series standouts Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell in this year’s Rookie of the Year class.
Suarez now found himself driving for a third different Cup Series team in only his fourth season. It was long rumored over the offseason that Suarez would land at Gaunt Brothers Racing, whose 2019 driver Parker Kligerman had no plans to run any of NASCAR’s top three series in 2020. It was not confirmed until January 28. Suarez would also bring with him sponsorship from Coca-Cola and CommScope, allowing the Gaunt team to attempt their first full-time season. The Gaunt Brothers had only run part-time as an open team, but climbed to the highest-ranked team without a Charter, putting them in position to earn one.
Driver and team’s first step would come at Daytona, where the Gaunt Brothers elected not to enter Suarez in the season-opening Busch Clash. Although this kept Suarez from capitalizing on his pole last summer at Kentucky, it was perhaps for the best – only Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman escaped that race without significant damage, and Erik Jones took the checkers in a battered Toyota.
Suarez showed speed in opening practice, ranking highest of the “open” drivers and eighth overall on the charts. He then slipped to 37th in the second session of the day, leaving it anyone’s guess how the car would perform in qualifying. As the 23rd car on track and last of the “open” cars to time in, Suarez needed to best Brendan Gaughan to become one of the cars locked in on speed. His lap of 185.479mph (48.523 seconds) fell short, locking Gaughan into the show for his final Daytona 500. And for the first time in his brief career, Suarez would have to race his way into the 500 field, starting 19th in the 22-car field of Duel Race 1.
Starting last in Thursday’s first qualifier was Joey Gase, locked in by virtue of one of Rick Ware Racing’s three Charters. Gase drove the team’s flagship #51 Chevrolet with sponsorship from EFX Corp, but turned in the slowest completed lap in qualifying (teammate B.J. McLeod ranked below him when his #52 Ford failed to post a time). Gase would be joined at the back by Ryan Newman, who surrendered 8th on the grid due to a penalty for unapproved adjustments. Not penalized was Brad Keselowski, who still started 12th in his #2 Discount Tire Ford since his incident striking a barrier leaving the garage happened in final practice before qualifying.
|Suarez towed behind the wall after his wreck.|
PHOTO: Luis Torres, @TheLTFiles
Gase lost a second lap on the 20th circuit, and the lap after reported his water temperature was at 240 degrees with his oil at 206. Gase then pulled to the high lane in Turns 1 and 2 as another draft of lead-lap cars rushed past to his inside. Finchum took over last from Gase during pit stops, and the #49 was still running there when trouble broke out. “They’re wrecking behind you,” said Finchum’s spotter. “96 is done.”
Heading into the tri-oval, Suarez was also running by himself and had been caught by the same draft line of Fords that lapped Gase. As the Fords slowed to head to pit road, a reported miscommunication between Ryan Blaney and his crew chief caused Blaney’s #12 Peak / Menards Ford to collide with Suarez past pit entrance, steering Suarez nose-first into the outside wall. The #96 then careened into the grass, where the splitter dug in and destroyed what remained of the front clip. While Blaney managed to continue on (though he will go to a backup for the Daytona 500), a disgusted Suarez climbed out of his car, done for the night, and out of the Daytona 500 field. Suarez officially took the last spot on Lap 32.
Suarez turned out to be the race’s only retiree. The rest of the Bottom Five was filled by lapped cars, who all at one point pulled out of the draft to let the leaders get by. Gase took 21st, matching the three laps down of Finchum. Finchum’s 20th-place eliminated him from the Daytona 500 field along with Gase. Quin Houff pulled low on the backstretch in the final five laps, putting his #00 Jacob Companies Chevrolet in 19th.
Rounding out the group was Reed Sorenson, whose unsponsored blue #27 Chevrolet benefited from Suarez’ misfortune. Sorenson lost his lap with a pull to the inside with less than three to go. By besting both Finchum and Suarez, Sorenson locked himself into the 500 field.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #96 in the history of the Duels.
*Daytona was also the scene of Suarez' first Cup Series last-place finish, when he was collected in a wreck here last July.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
22) #96-Daniel Suarez / 28 laps / crash
21) #51-Joey Gase / 57 laps / running
20) #49-Chad Finchum / 57 laps / running
19) #00-Quin Houff / 58 laps / running
18) #27-Reed Sorenson / 59 laps / running