Monster Energy Cup Series News

Monster Energy Cup Series News (16338)

Bubba Wallace made his first trip – ever - to Disney World this week visiting the amusement park - located an hour and a half south of Daytona Beach - with his good buddy and fellow Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Ryan Blaney.

They rode the famous rides, saw Cinderella’s Castle, watched Star Wars light saber duels – all the things that make the Disney World experience such an iconic part of our culture.

In some ways, it was a perfectly fitting day-off venture. Wallace, 25, returns to what may be his own Magic Kingdom, Daytona International Speedway, for Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). A year ago on these storied 2.5-mile high banks, Wallace simultaneously made sporting history and made good on a lifetime of personal pursuit - that he was ready and able to make it at NASCAR’s highest level.

Shortly after climbing out of his car, after finishing runner-up in his very first version of NASCAR’s Super Bowl, Wallace attended a press conference where his emotions were raw and overwhelming. His work was the highest ever finish for an African-American in the Daytona 500.

But equally as important to Wallace, his work resulted in a noted and grand arrival – his. He proved that he absolutely belonged in the sport and could compete on the biggest stage door-to-door with the best there is. And succeed.

“I just try so hard to be successful at everything I do, and my family pushes me each and every day, and they might not even know it, but I just want to make them proud," Wallace said, pausing to wipe away tears of raw emotion as he sat at the interview podium last February. “Second is horrible, but it's still a good day.

In the days leading up to last year’s Daytona 500, baseball legend Hank Aaron called and Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton tweeted to Wallace – they wished good luck and offered a proverbial pat on the back for the journey he was embarking on. Both Aaron and Hamilton prevailing against the odds too.

After the race and the incredible result, Wallace’s team owner, NASCAR Hall of Famer and the sport’s biggest icon, Richard Petty was all smiles – as proud as he has looked in many years.

Wallace’s mother Desiree Wallace remembers that day well too. Her son paused in the middle of his post-race press conference to embrace and thank her – one of the most moving and emotional Daytona 500 moments in recent memory.

“I look at it like triumph, it’s like we finally made it," Desiree Wallace said last week reflecting on the moment. “He was like, ‘Mom, you act like I won.’ And I said, ‘you did win baby, you did win.’

“It’s like I felt like at that moment he won the heart of so many people that night, not just the black community but every one of every color. It was very moving.

“I thought back to where he had come from, all the teams, why was it so hard for my son to get sponsorship and then for him just to be in the Daytona 500 then to finish second and be sitting up here on this podium. He did win."

For most of us in many ways, it could legitimately be considered victory. But for Bubba, it was more positive motivation – not an end result.

Even while answering reporters’ questions in the days leading up to this year’s Daytona 500, Wallace frequently – very frequently – reminded that technically a runner-up isn’t a “win.” The second-place finish in last year’s Daytona 500 was encouraging, historic and emotional.

But it wasn’t fully satisfying because it wasn’t a win. Yet

And maybe it’s because Wallace is so focused on the big prize that he has been so successful – that’s he’s earned opportunity and to date, managed to capitalize at every level.

He and his Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 team are optimistic the results will begin to match the effort put forth. They acknowledge, however, that finishing runner-up in his first Daytona 500 set the bar – perhaps unfairly – high for Wallace.

Wallace’s seventh place qualifying effort and runner-up finish at Daytona were the high mark of his rookie season. He added another top-10 at Texas Motor Speedway six weeks after the Daytona 500 and closed out the year with a top-10 in Phoenix just before the season finale. And he led laps in five races.

At Daytona International Speedway, Wallace has never finished worse than 15th in three Cup starts – an encouraging statistic considering the close-quarter restrictor plate racing at the track.

It all bodes well for Wallace this week. He has a new crew chief in Derek Stamets – who moves into the role after serving as an engineer on the team.

And the one thing that is certain, is there are plenty of people eager to see Wallace succeed.

His mother still remembers the early days when Wallace was often the only driver of color in a race, perhaps even at the race track. Her son’s work in the Daytona 500 last year was a huge step forward in believing that while it is fair and heartwarming to feel good about Wallace’s accomplishments now, soon his skin color won’t even be a topic.

She recalled a race in Richmond, Va. years ago – a race Wallace won – and the crowd that lingered afterward to offer congratulations – many of them African American.

“I told him, this is your purpose to make more of a diverse crowd in NASCAR," Desiree Wallace said. “That was a pivotal moment for me. Of all these people watching my son race. .. sometimes I would be the only black person around. I’d get a kick out people coming up and asking, ‘are you Bubba’s mom?’

“That was a pivotal moment for me and I thought, maybe God is going to use him for a bigger stage.

Wallace smiled and acknowledged the good will and shared a story from his own recent vacation. He and his longtime girlfriend Amanda and their friends were sitting in the airport in Hawaii waiting at the gate to make their return trip to North Carolina.

“I was sitting there and had a Petty [team] pullover just sitting on top of a bag," Wallace said. “A Hawaiian guy just walks up and says, ‘Are you Bubba Wallace? I’m a big Bubba Wallace fan, my son and I go to a bunch of races.

“I mean, we’re in Hawaii and I get noticed? Pretty cool."

Wallace should get used to it. Young, well-liked, talented and poised, Wallace is exactly the front man the sport is excited to promote.

While it’s impossible to “call his shot” and promise another thrilling finish in Sunday’s Daytona 500, Wallace does insist that he couldn’t be more prepared for the spotlight’s glare, the trophy hoist, the feeling that’s he’s come a long way and made it. And for sure, he is trying to enjoy the journey.

“Coming into the season last year we were like there is no way in hell that we would finish second in my first Daytona 500 attempt," Wallace recalled. “I thought I would go out there and cause ‘the big one’.

“You try your hardest not to, but it’s there. So, to be able to do that and to be able to come out almost on top pushing the No. 3 [Austin Dillon] to Victory Lane was pretty cool, pretty special.

“A lot of people hyped this story up as coming back as ‘oh you are going to do it again’. It’s like, let’s pump the brakes, let’s get through the rest of the week and let’s make it to lap 199, let’s stop and have a break and do an interview on that last lap and see if we have a shot.

“If I make it to 199, hell yeah, I’m going to go for it.”

Weekend Notes 
 

Ty Dillon and the GEICO Racing team are gearing up for the “Great American Race.” Already showing speed in the draft, Dillon had his No. 13 GEICO Camaro ZL1 fifth on the speed chart in first practice and was second fastest in final practice. He will compete in Thursday night’s second qualifying duel to determine his starting position. This will be Dillon’s fifth appearance in the Daytona 500.

 

In the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at Daytona International Speedway, Dillon has an average start of 24.0 and an average finish of 22.8. He logged his best finish of sixth place in the summer of 2018 in the GEICO Camaro ZL1; it was also his career-best finish. His best start of 12th place came in the 2016 Daytona 500. Dillon has one top-10 finish and has led 10 laps of MENCS competition at the famed racetrack. In his nine NASCAR Xfinity Series starts at Daytona, he has earned one top-five finish, two top-10 finishes, one pole award in 2016 and has led 34 laps of competition. He has run three NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series races at Daytona. Dillon never finished outside the top 11, earned the pole award in 2015 and led 93 laps of competition. 

Dillon Weekend Chatter

What are your thoughts as you prepare for your fifth Daytona 500?
“Daytona is such a special place. I’ve been coming here my entire life with my family. I have so many great memories at this track. It makes racing in the Daytona 500 even more special. Last year was a tough one for our GEICO Racing team, but that makes us even more motivated and excited to kick off this season. You can set a great tone for the year with a successful Daytona 500. These guys have been working hard through the entire off season to be ready for this weekend. We’re going to show everyone what we’re made of.”
 

Germain Racing PR

Weekend Notes 
 

Casey Mears is making his return to NASCAR in this weekend’s Daytona 500. He will pilot the No. 27 Rim Ryderz Camaro ZL1 for Germain Racing, built and staffed in collaboration with Premium Motorsports. After locking himself into the race based on his qualifying speed, Mears’ official starting spot will be determined in the second qualifying duel on Thursday night.  This will be his 13th appearance in the Daytona 500.

 

Mears has 25 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races at Daytona International Speedway under his belt. He has an average start of 23.2 and an average finish of 20.0 at the famed track. Coming close to victory, Mears earned a second-place finish in the 2006 Daytona 500. He has a total of two top-five finishes, six top-10 finishes and has led 21 laps of competition. Mears has run five NASCAR Xfinity series races at the historic track, scoring two top-10 finishes.

Mears Weekend Chatter

What are you most excited about in your return to NASCAR for the Daytona 500?
“Who doesn’t love the Daytona 500? It is the biggest race of the year. I’m excited to have the opportunity to race in it again. To already be locked in on qualifying speed is a big relief going into Thursday night’s duels. Everyone has worked so hard to put this program together. With Rim Ryderz jumping on board, I have a good feeling about how the weekend will go. I would love nothing more than to get this Rim Ryderz Camaro ZL1 to Victory Lane with Bob Germain, Jay Robinson and everyone that has made this happen.”

Germain Racing PR

NASCAR Drive for Diversity pit crew members Brehanna Daniels and Breanna O’Leary will make their DAYTONA 500® debut together as tire-changers on Cody Ware’s No. 52 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 during Sunday’s race at Daytona International Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

In doing so, Daniels and O’Leary will become the first female graduates of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Pit Crew Development Program to go over the wall in the Great American Race®.

The tire-changers will be joined by tire-carriers Brandon Banks and Phil Thomas – also NASCAR Drive for Diversity pit crew alums – on the No. 52 Rick Ware Racing team for Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series™ race.

“The DAYTONA 500 is such a huge stage and getting to share the experience with Brehanna will make it that much sweeter,” said O’Leary, who made her debut in NASCAR’s top series at Michigan International Speedway in 2018. “We came in together, trained together and got better together – and now February 17 will be another milestone we get to share together.”

Daniels and O’Leary will return to the same iconic race track where they first pitted together for Rick Ware Racing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ Coke Zero Sugar 400 last July.

“I’m really looking forward to pitting in the DAYTONA 500 and having my teammate alongside me,” said Daniels. “It’s incredible how far we’ve come in such a short time and I couldn’t be more excited to be back at Daytona International Speedway.”

In 2016, Daniels and O’Leary were recruited to the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Pit Crew Development Program by Phil Horton, longtime pit crew coach for Rev Racing. O’Leary had been an outfielder on the Alcorn State University softball team and Daniels played Division I basketball at Norfolk State University.

The professional tire-changers now share an apartment in Concord, N.C., and have gone over the wall in more than 60 combined race events across NASCAR’s national series and the ARCA Menards Series.

None, however, is more prestigious than Sunday’s DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

“In NASCAR racing, the stage doesn’t get any bigger than this – it’s the DAYTONA 500,” said Jusan Hamilton, NASCAR director of racing operations and event management. “Brehanna, Breanna and their NASCAR Drive for Diversity teammates have trained diligently for this moment and have earned the opportunity to compete at this level. We’re excited to watch them perform on Sunday.”

“We are proud to have these remarkable women on our team and we look forward to having them join us more throughout the 2019 season,” said Rick Ware, owner of Rick Ware Racing. “Last July, Rick Ware Racing was the perfect fit for Brehanna and Breanna as the first female NASCAR Drive for Diversity tire-changers to pit on the same team at the Cup level. We have always stressed our family philosophy at RWR, so we welcomed them into our family and they performed very well.”

Daniels, O’Leary, Banks and Thomas are among more than 50 graduates of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Pit Crew Development Program currently working in the NASCAR industry. In 2019, 28 alums will begin the season pitting on Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams.

Last February, Derrell Edwards became the first NASCAR Drive for Diversity pit crew member to be part of a DAYTONA 500-winning team when driver Austin Dillon raced to Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway.

The 61st running of the DAYTONA 500 will be broadcast live on Sunday, Feb. 17 at 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, channel 90, with additional coverage on NASCAR.com

NASCAR PR

Paul Menard and the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane team, fresh off a strong run in the Advance Auto Parts Clash, are set to officially kick off their 2019 campaign in Thursday’s Gander RV Duel qualifying races.

Menard, who led a Clash-record 51 laps last Sunday, will be back in his Daytona 500 Mustang for the first of two 150-mile qualifying races that will set the field for Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Menard starts sixth in the first Duel after qualifying 11th this past Sunday.

Eddie Wood said he likes what he’s seen of his team so far this Speedweeks.
 
“I was really proud of Paul and how he ran on Sunday,” Wood said. “The new Mustang is impressive. We had some new people on the team and they did a good job. We had a good pit stop in the Clash, and we all think our new spotter, Joey Meier, is going to be a great addition to the 21 team.”
 
Wood said how the team fares in Thursday evening’s 150-miler will determine how the rest of the week goes.
 
“After you run the qualifier, depending on how you run and how things unfold, you’ll know what to work on in practice on Friday,” he said.
  
And, like last year, there will be points to be earned in the Duels. The top-10 finishers in each Duel will receive Stage points like in a regular points race, with the winner earning 10 Stage points and the 10th-place driver earning one.
 
“We’ve all come to understand how important each Stage point can be,” Wood said.
 
Likewise, the Duels offer the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team a chance to show some hospitality to some of the people from Ford Motor Company and others who make their racing possible.
 
“We’re looking forward to having Mr. Edsel Ford and Mr. John Menard with us,” Wood said. “It’s always an honor to have them with us wherever we are, but having them at Daytona International Speedway is extra special.”
 
The Gander RV Duels are scheduled to start at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 14, with TV coverage on Fox Sports 1, and the green flag for the Daytona 500 is set to fly at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 17, at 2:30 p.m., with TV coverage on FOX.

WBR PR

Front Row Motorsports and Shriners Hospitals for Children today announced their continued partnership with David Ragan and of the Front Row Motorsports' (FRM) No. 38 Ford Mustang team in 2019. Shriners Hospitals for Children will be the primary sponsor of Ragan during three Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races, including Talladega Superspeedway on April 28, Chicagoland Speedway on June 30 and during "Throwback Weekend" at Darlington Raceway on September 1. Shriners Hospitals will be an associate sponsor all season.
 
Ragan will again host patients at the track, including this weekend when he will host Momo Sutton of the Shriners Hospitals for Children-Tampa. Sutton, 11, is from Orlando and has a congenital amputation of her right arm, but she has not let that stop her from being active. She enjoys horseback riding, swimming, playing soccer, basketball, softball and doing gymnastics. She has even recently taken up golf. The prosthetists in the P.O.P.S department at the Shriners Hospitals for Children - Tampa help keep Sutton and other patients active by designing custom limbs and adjusting or replacing them as the children grow or develop new interests. They even create special limbs so kids can participate in sports or other activities such as music.
 
"It really is so amazing what the Shriners Hospitals for Children can do for these young kids to have them live a normal life and participate in activities just like their friends," said Ragan. "That's what I love about this partnership with Shriners Hospitals for Children, is telling the story about patients such as Momo and so many more. It's inspiring to see what Shriners Hospitals can do, and I'm proud to say that I'm a Shriner and to have them on our car again this year. It's a great program to have everyone rally around."
 
Shriners Hospitals for Children is the leader in the treatment of pediatric orthopaedic conditions, spinal cord injuries, burns and cleft lip and palate. Shriners Hospitals for Children provides critical, surgical and rehabilitative care to children, regardless of the families' ability to pay.
 
"We are proud to continue our relationship with David Ragan and Front Row Motorsports," said Jim Cain, chairman of the Board of Directors for Shriners Hospitals for Children. "This partnership with David and Front Row Motorsports has elevated the awareness for our Hospitals and the work they do for our patients. We look forward to another successful NASCAR program this year."
 
This is the fourth consecutive year Shriners Hospitals for Children will support the on-track efforts of Ragan, who has an authentic relationship with the national children's hospitals. Ragan has been a member of Shriners International since 2012 and serves as its NASCAR ambassador. Ragan visits Shriners Hospitals during the race season and invites patients to the track for once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Ragan also raises awareness and funds for Shriners Hospitals for Children through various campaigns, personal service announcements, donations and activities.
 
FRM PR
 

The 40th anniversary of the race that put NASCAR on the map is all but lost on William Byron.

When Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison wrecked in the closing laps of the 1979 Daytona 500—and tried to settle their differences with fisticuffs afterward—Byron wasn’t around.

In fact, when Jimmie Johnson won his first career pole at Daytona in 2002, Byron was more than nine months away from his fifth birthday. As he grew older, he paid attention to Johnson’s success with crew chief Chad Knaus.

“I mean, I'm so young, I wasn't around for a lot of that,” Byron said of the 1979 race. “I guess, like, growing up watching, honestly, Jimmie and Chad win races at the 500, then watching Kevin Harvick win in 2007—those are the races that stick in my mind. 

“I'm trying to make memories for myself. It's cool to see some of that stuff come around full circle.” 

Team owner Rick Hendrick closed the circle with a personnel shuffle that broke up the Johnson/Knaus pairing after 17 years and brought the seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion crew chief to Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet.

That’s something Byron couldn’t have imagined when, as a driver for the Hendrick Motorsports-affiliated JR Motorsports NASCAR Xfinity Series team, he met Knaus for the first time.

“No, definitely not, definitely not,” Byron said on Wednesday during Daytona 500 media day at Daytona International Speedway. “That’s a crazy thought to think a couple of years ago, that I could have him as a crew chief.

“But a huge honor, and something that I’m looking forward to.”

Byron already has something he can look back on, too. On Sunday, with Knaus on his pit box, the 21-year-old driver won his first career Busch Pole, securing the top starting spot for Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Hendrick Motorsports drivers had the four fastest laps in the final round, with Alex Bowman, Johnson and Chase Elliott trailing Byron.

Johnson and Knaus won the Daytona 500 pole in their first race together. Byron and Knaus did the same, a testament to how quickly the young driver and veteran crew chief have adapted to each other.

“He's exciting to work with,” Byron said. “He's super into anything racing-related, whether it’s car-related or driver-related. He's helped me a lot with a lot of things I didn't really expect him to really care about that much. 

“He cares about me as a person. That builds a level of trust and respect between us. Still a lot… still very fresh and very new of a relationship. We've worked a lot in the offseason to make sure it's the way it should be.”

Byron can look back on his first pole, but he’d prefer not to look much further, opting to put a rocky 2018 rookie season in the Cup series behind him. With an average finish of 22.1 and four top 10s in 36 points races, Byron finished the year 23rd in the standings.

With a new crew chief and a new competition package this season, he can discard much of last year without regret.

“Honestly, I don't think about it that much right now,” Byron said. “I kind of blocked out most of that last year, other than the things I learned about myself mentally. But honestly, there's not really a lot that's similar to last year with us, besides the (car) number and the way the car looks.

“Don’t really think about it.”

With three days between his qualifying laps and his Gander RV Duel At Daytona 150-mile qualifying race on Thursday, Byron is eager to start racing.

“I'm ready to get in a car,” Byron said. “I'm tired of talking about it. I just want to go race. Can't wait to get into the car.”

The nature of superspeedway racing tends to minimize the advantage a pole winner might have. It’s not particularly surprising that no Daytona polesitter has won the 500 since Dale Jarrett took the checkered flag 19 years ago. Byron hopes to break that trend.

“That would be awesome,” Byron allowed. “Hopefully, if it's in the plan, I guess meant to be, it will be. We'll see what happens.”

 

Martin Truex Jr. showed up for Daytona 500 Media Day looking relaxed but speaking of high expectations for his debut season driving the No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Truex moved to the Gibbs stable this year after spending five seasons with the Furniture Row Racing organization where he enjoyed the best year of his career – winning eight races (more than his previous entire career total - seven) en route to the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy.

Because of the “satellite” working relationship between FRR and the Gibbs organizations, he said the transition to the championship Gibbs group has “fortunately” been relatively seamless. Now he and his crew chief Cole Pearn can join company competition meetings in person instead of via satellite.

The expectation is to win immediately. And often.

“I would say that it was a lot easier," Truex, 38, said with a smile during Media Day to preview Sunday's Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX). “A lot less unknowns. Less nervous about it just because I know things. I talk about simple things like I know what their brakes are like. I know what their throttle pedal feels like. I know what kind of steering they run.

“When I’ve switched teams before it’s like starting over a lot of times. When I went from DEI (Dale Earnhardt Incorporated) to MWR (Michael Waltrip Racing) it was like completely starting over. All new people. All different parts and pieces. All new equipment. Everything felt different. The approach was different. That’s where you kind of have that anxiety of how’s this really going to be. I think it’s going to be good, but I don’t know.

“There’s so many questions when you switch teams like that. For this transition for me, it was a lot easier because we worked so closely together the past couple of years. We’ve essentially built our cars together. We used all the same stuff – parts and pieces, engines, you name it. I’m familiar with all that. I’m familiar with their process. The way they do things. The way they work together. The way their meetings are. You name it, it’s a comfortable change. For me, it’s been as easy as it’s ever been to switch teams like this year.”

Obviously the first big goal for Truex is a good showing in the Daytona 500. The closest he came to winning it was the closest anyone came to winning it – one-hundredth of a second. He finished alongside Denny Hamlin – now a teammate at JGR – in a finish so close officials had to review it.

Ultimately Hamlin hoisted the trophy. Truex is still pursuing it – eager to add a Daytona 500 triumph to his championship career. He has three top-10 finishes in 14 races and was 18th last year.

“I guess it can be frustrating, but anything that big is not easy to get," Truex recalled, shaking his head. “It’s just the way it is. You look at Dale Earnhardt, it took him 17 tries or something – 20. He won the most races at Daytona of anyone ever and he hadn’t won the Daytona 500. That just shows how hard it is to win.

“I don’t think that’s changed over the years. You look at a guy like Trevor Bayne – he came out of nowhere and won the thing and never won any other races. It’s one of those races where crazy things tend to happen. Huge stories tend to come out of it and that’s part of the reason why it’s such a big deal.”

This year, in this circumstance, it would also be a statement.

Truex is driving for the fourth team in his 13-year fulltime career. He won races for the previous three and would love to land Gibbs a fifth Cup title.

Last year he made a run at back-to-back championships – unofficially a part of 2018 “Big Three” – comprised of eight-time race winners Kevin Harvick and Truex’s new teammate at JGR, Kyle Busch. Truex was a four-time winner and the threesome were the year’s winningest.

“Everybody in the garage wants to be one of those guys that are looked at as 'here’s the guys to beat every week,'" Truex said. “We all want to be there.

“It’s been fun to be in that position for a couple years. No guarantee that we’ll be there again. You never know who’s going to figure it out quick and come out – some guy could come out of nowhere this season, you never know because it’s going to be so different. I don’t know.

“There’s a lot to learn. I really don’t worry about all that stuff. I worry about results. I want to win races and if we do our jobs and if I’m happy with the job I’m doing then yeah, I’ll probably be one of those Big Three.”

What’s the greatest challenge for driver Daniel Suarez as he transitions from one powerhouse team to another?

Avoiding gluttony—in a figurative sense, of course.

Suarez knows he needs to exercise patience as he learns the ropes at Stewart-Haas Racing after a spotty two years with Joe Gibbs Racing. But Suarez also acknowledges that patience runs contrary to his nature.

“We have to be patient,” Suarez said on Wednesday during a Daytona 500 media day question-and-answer session with reporters at Daytona International Speedway. “Sometimes when you’re hungry, and you see all this food in front of you, you want to go ahead and eat the whole thing.

“But you have to take the time, do things right, walk and then run. I want to run and then run again.”

Though he’s eager to learn and ready to use all the resources at his disposal, Suarez is fighting the urge to expect too much too soon from his move to Stewart-Haas after a season of inconsistency and bewilderment at JGR.

At Pocono in July, Suarez won his first career pole and finished second to teammate Kyle Busch in the race. He ran third at Dover in May and fourth at Watkins Glen. But those were Suarez’s only three top fives in a season that produced an average starting spot of 17.4, an average finish of 18.5 and 21st place in the final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings.

Across the board, those statistics were inferior to the numbers Suarez posted during his 2017 rookie season, and the driver from Monterrey, Mexico, was at a loss to understand why.

“I feel like something was missing, and I don’t know what it was,” Suarez said. “I’m not the best driver when it comes to patience, and I was always pushing things and trying to figure out things and find out what was that part I was missing.

“I couldn’t find it, and they couldn’t find it either, and we decided to part ways. Honestly, maybe six months ago I was pretty disappointed and pretty down on things, but today I can say it was the best thing that could've happen to me.”

Suarez has found simpatico with another Joe Gibbs Racing alumnus who happens to be his car owner. In 2008, Tony Stewart announced he was leaving JGR to partner as an owner/driver with Gene Haas in a team renamed Stewart-Haas Racing. Stewart won the last of his three Cup championships with SHR in 2011, beating Carl Edwards for the title on a tiebreaker.

“One thing that I think is extremely important is how involved Tony Stewart is in the racing,” Suarez said. “I have had a good relationship with Tony in the past, but now I’m getting to talk with him more and getting to learn from him more, and it’s extremely good.

“He’s a driver. He’s not just a team owner. He’s a driver who happens to be a team owner, and that’s something I feel is a plus, because he understands the position of a driver. He knows what the race car is lacking… I see Stewart-Haas as a big organization with a bunch of real racers involved, which is very good.”

Denny Hamlin readily acknowledges that when he shows up at Daytona International Speedway, he is a race favorite. He’s earned that distinction as a former Daytona 500 winner.

But this year a victory in the sport’s biggest race wouldn’t only be of historical significance of but put an end to the longest winless streak in the 38-year old Virginian’s decorated Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career. Last year he did not win a race for the first time since his 2006 rookie season.

“I feel pretty optimistic,’’ Hamlin said, sitting down to meet with reporters during the annual Daytona 500 Media Day. “I would say about the same as usual to be honest with you.

“I thought The Clash (last Sunday afternoon) kind of gave us an indication that we were able to kind of get up front even starting last. We got up front in a timely manner. No surprises really from that, so there’s no reason to think otherwise that we can’t win.”

This year, his showing in the Feb. 17 Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusNASCAR Radio) will be especially important and, frankly, sentimental as he has dedicated his season to one of his biggest supporters, J.D. Gibbs, 49, who passed away last month after a long illness.

Gibbs, son of Joe Gibbs Racing founder Joe Gibbs, died on Jan. 11 from degenerative neurological disease. J.D. was not only president of the NASCAR championship organization but he was the person who signed a 23-year old Hamlin to the team in 2005. It was a relationship established on talent but built on equal parts friendship and business. And this week, Hamlin still looked pained and sentimental thinking of the loss.

“It’ll be super important [to do well],’’ Hamlin said. “Everyone knows how important he was for me and my career and everything he did for us, so certainly having success on track will be crucial for that. Now that I pledged $111 for every lap that we lead, it’s going to be important for me to get up front and get up front often.”

Up front is a reasonable and likely place to find Hamlin at Daytona International Speedway. His work in the Daytona 500 – specifically – and Speedweeks in general, is undoubtedly a career highlight reel. He is the 2016 Daytona 500 winner, earned three victories in the Duel at Daytona qualifying races and three wins in the Advance Auto Parts Clash - including his career first Cup-level victory as a rookie in the 2006 Clash non-points race.

His 267 laps led in the Daytona 500 is most in this year’s field as are his 407 total laps led at Daytona International Speedway (also including the summer Coke Zero 400).

Hamlin is also among the sport’s most elite company winning both the Clash and the Daytona 500 in the same year – something that’s occurred only six times total.

This season Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota will have a new crew chief in Chris Gabehart, who moved up from JGR’s NASCAR Xfinity Series stable. Interestingly, as much pressure as there is in the sport’s most celebrated race, Hamlin thinks the Daytona 500 restrictor plate race may well be the best kind of transition for a new crew chief.

“I think it’s actually a good race to start with a new crew chief because you’re not really talking about handling that much,’’ Hamlin said. “It’s a good one to just kind of get your feet wet on the communication side of things. What his lingo is on the radio versus mine, so I think it’s actually a good start to the year.

“Even for the drivers that are in new situations to start a year on a superspeedway where you’re not really having to fix the car much. It’s kind of more about the driver and how he strategically makes his way through the pack.”

A win or even a good showing in the 500 would certainly continue the kind of positive energy Hamlin showed in the end of last year.

He finished a season-best runner-up twice (at Dover, Del. and Martinsville, Va.) during the 10-race 2018 Playoffs to end the season and finished 11th in the overall standings.  He earned four pole positions and sat on pole for the season finale at Homestead, Fla.

It’s all eyes ahead.

“I’m looking forward to this one more than looking back on the last one simply because there’s just nothing I can change from this past year,’’ Hamlin said. “I couldn’t help the bad breaks that we had or the things that went wrong. All you can do is just figure out how can that not happen again.

“With a new crew chief, you’re obviously also working on what do we need to do to communicate better? What do you need from me and what do I need from you and that’s the most important thing that we really worked on.

“You always feel like you have something to prove, but certainly this year in particular, I’m very fired up to go out there and win. Not one race, not two races, not even three – just like multiple race sand show that we are a contender each and every week just like I know that we are.

“You can always talk about the ones that got away last year, but that was last year. So what, now what? We’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do to change the narrative of our team that we’re on the decline.”

Permatex®, a leading innovator in chemical technology for automotive maintenance and repair, will be hosting a Meet-and-Greet with its NASCAR driver Landon Cassill before he pilots the Permatex StarCom Racing 00 Camaro in the 61st running of the Daytona 500. The event will be held at Advance Auto Parts,1309 Belville Road, Daytona Beach, FL, 32119 on Friday, February 15th from 9:30AM until 11:00AM.

Free Race fan merchandise and PlayStation challenge In addition to meeting and chatting with Landon Cassill, fans will get a chance to collect some of the free signed Permatex and racing merchandise as well as hero cards. Additionally, there will be a video game trailer on-site where fans can challenge Landon Cassill to a race in NASCAR Heat 3 and Forza Horizon 4 on PlayStation 4. StarCom Driver, Landon Cassill

StarCom team driver, Landon Cassill, began his professional driving career in 2008, and was named the Xfinity Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year. Cassill has competed for 10 seasons in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series, his best career result is a 4th place finish at Talladega in 2014. The 2019 season will mark Cassill’s second year with StarCom Racing.

Paco Agrafojo, Permatex Director of Marketing, announced the event, noting, “We are extremely excited to put this Meet-and-Greet together with Permatex, Landon Cassill and Advance Auto Parts. Permatex’s sponsorship of StarCom Racing’s 00 Camaro represents the company’s return to NASCAR racing and the Daytona 500. We are excited to introduce the Permatex brand to a new generation of race fans and also showcase our new products to our loyal customers.”

Permatex was actively involved as a NASCAR supporter and title sponsor from 1948 to 1977. The Permatex 300, inaugurated in 1966, was only the second race on the NASCAR schedule to be named for a corporate sponsor.

Permatex PR

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