March 30, 2019 / 7:34 PM / 3 months ago

NASCAR notebook: Suarez embraces mentor role

FORT WORTH, Texas - As he did for much of his racing career, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Daniel Suarez forged his own path in qualifying Friday night for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 (on Sunday, March 31 at 3 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Mar 29, 2019; Fort Worth, TX, USA; Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Daniel Suarez (41) during qualifying for the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

While his fellow competitors hesitated to make a lap, Suarez darted out onto the track alone. Ultimately, he was rewarded with a fourth-place qualifying effort at Texas Motor Speedway.

Suarez faced a similar challenging situation in NASCAR. No other Mexican driver had ascended through the top national tours to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series — until Suarez arrived as part of the Drive 4 Diversity program.

As a teenager, Suarez gained experience and exposure on the short tracks of Mexico. At 19, he added the NASCAR K&N Pro Series to his schedule. Visits to Richmond Raceway, Iowa Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway prepared him for that next leap, but Suarez still lacked that mentor he could rely on to avoid the pitfalls of aspiring racers.

“I watched Adrian Fernandez a lot,” Suarez said of the 54-year-old Mexico City racer who ran 10 Xfinity Series races between 2005-2008. “But when I came here to the U.S., I didn’t have anyone from Mexico or Latin America that I could go to to ask a question.”

Now, Suarez serves as a role model for other aspiring Hispanic racers.

“Today, there are a handful of kids that call me from Mexico that want to come here and are asking for my advice,” Suarez added. “Slowly, I am becoming ‘that guy’ for a lot of kids in Mexico. I’m very proud to be able to help them and try to be that person that I didn’t have when I was coming here.”

This year, Suarez has found a new home with Stewart-Haas Racing. He’s experiencing a level of comfort with crew chief Billy Scott and the No. 41 SHR Ford Mustang team that was missing in his meteoric rise to Cup. Last weekend at Martinsville Speedway, Suarez posted his second top-10 finish of the season. Plus, his fourth-place qualifying run last night was his best since joining the team.

“I’m happier,” Suarez said. “It’s always good to be with a group of guys like this. Last year, I wasn’t happy. It was just a little bit different and this year I’m more relaxed and just hoping to do my thing and I feel like we have more speed. Last year, there was a lot of inconsistency. Right now, I feel like we’re consistent and moving in the right direction.

“Last year was different, but for sure I’m more happy and more relaxed. My team, Billy Scott is a great crew chief. I have great engineers and a lot of good people behind me and I feel like we’re gonna do great things together. We just have to be patient and try to keep working in the direction we’re going so far. I don’t feel like we are where we want to be yet, but we have to be patient.”

JIMMIE JOHNSON IS GOING THE DISTANCE

Jimmie Johnson knows how to pace himself through the NASCAR season.

His effort has paid off with seven Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series titles and 83 career wins.

While many of his fellow competitors will head for the beach for spring break in two weeks, Johnson will compete in the 2019 Boston Marathon. After spending the last four months training for his first full marathon, the 43-year-old racer feels he’s up for the task.

“It is probably an hour most days, and maybe two days where it is an hour and a half or two hours for a run just to get the mileage in,” Johnson said. “It is a lot less than I have done in years past training for triathlons and some cycling events I have done. Running is much more efficient. You can get a lot done in a shorter period of time.

“I am thankful that the bulk of my mileage is behind me and I am starting a process called tapering. This week mileage cuts back, next week even more and then the following week we are at the marathon. We’ve tore the body down, now it is time to rebuild it and get ready and heal up to run my 26.2 on April 15th.”

This year’s NASCAR schedule was ideal for Johnson to knock the Boston Marathon off of his bucket list. With Richmond being a Saturday night race, Johnson has a full day to recover before undertaking the challenge.

“I do feel good,” Johnson said. “I lost a month due to an injury and a cold. I know that is going affect my goal in a sense, but to go run such a major event on Patriots Day and what I hear about the experience, I’m just excited to have that chance. It’s going to be a fun day.”

FINAL PRACTICE HIGHLIGHTS

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin was fastest in final practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with a speed of 186.987 mph. Hamlin has made 26 series starts at Texas Motor Speedway posting two wins (2010 sweep) and 12 top 10s.

“The car has got good speed, said Hamlin following final practice. “I’m happy about that for sure. Just traffic is where we’re really trying to work on our car and trying to get it handling the best that we can.”

Polesitter Jimmie Johnson was fifth on the speed chart in final practice, but also led the best 10 consecutive lap averages chart with an average speed of 184.366 mph. Johnson has visited Victory Lane seven-times at Texas; including once from the pole (2012).

—By Lee Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media.

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