Daniel Suarez joins Stewart-Haas Racing, will drive No. 41 Ford

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. — It’s been a little easier for Daniel Suarez to keep a secret this offseason, with winter vacations and trips back to his home country of Mexico providing a welcome distraction. Detaching from social media and keeping his distance from the NASCAR rumor mill have been an additional help.

The wraps came off one of the final pieces to the 2019 Monster Energy Series driver roster Monday with Stewart-Haas Racing announcing that Suarez would join the organization in the No. 41 Ford for 2019. The official news comes as a special gift to mark a personal milestone — Suarez’s 27th birthday.

“It’s been a really exciting time for me. It’s been a little bit hard as well,” Suarez said of his offseason state of limbo. “A lot of people ask me those questions and I’ve been trying to avoid those answers, but I’m very excited that finally the word is going to be out and I’m going to be able to be more relaxed and more comfortable without feeling like I’m hiding something.

“I’m just really excited to be a part of Stewart-Haas Racing, a great organization. So far, everybody here has been making me feel at home.”

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Suarez replaces Kurt Busch, who departed in December for Chip Ganassi Racing after five years with SHR. The third-year driver joins an experienced bunch that includes former champ Kevin Harvick and veterans Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola.

Crew chief Billy Scott will return to the No. 41 team, marking his fourth season atop the pit box for the organization. Sponsorship will be shared by returning backer Haas Automation and by Arris, a telecommunications equipment company that also supported Suarez in his first two seasons in NASCAR’s top division.

The move also places Suarez firmly in the Ford camp after a long-running association with Toyota, which nurtured his development as he climbed the stock-car ladder. Suarez’s growth included a place in the NASCAR Next youth initiative, the 2016 Xfinity Series championship and an eventual spot as a Monster Energy Series regular, spending the last two seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 19 team.

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“It is different, for sure,” Suarez said of this year’s shift in manufacturer support. “If you look at it, I had a long career with Toyota, pretty much my entire career in NASCAR — not just in the U.S., but in Mexico. They were nothing but great to me. Great people, great company and I have nothing bad to say about them. They were nothing but great to me all the time, 100 percent. But you know, sometimes you have to make a change and things work out differently. … I made great friends over there, and we’re still friends. Now, I’m extremely excited to be part of the Ford family.”

Suarez missed the NASCAR Playoffs the last two seasons, and though his average finish and other stats dipped in 2018, he improved his output in other areas with three top-five finishes and his first Busch Pole Award.

His new scenario places him with a team that’s fresh from a dominant campaign where all four of its drivers visited Victory Lane at least once last season, a performance bar that raises the expectations for the organization’s newest member.

“There is pressure for sure, but I like that,” Suarez said. “That’s where I live. If I wasn’t good under pressure, I don’t feel like I would be a race car driver. I just love that and I know that I’m going (with) if not the best, one of the best teams right now and I’m really looking forward to that challenge. I feel like the 41 group is extremely good. Billy and the rest of the guys, they’ve been nothing but great to me so far. They have made me feel at home in just these weeks of working together, so really looking forward to working with these guys, to learn from them and to put the 41 Ford Mustang racing up front.”

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Suarez says he’s made efforts to get better acquainted with his new group, meeting Scott and the rest of the No. 41 crew for lunch last week and finding his way around the new shop. He anticipates chemistry to build quickly with Scott, whose technical know-how and calming demeanor helped to guide Danica Patrick (2016-17) and Busch (2018) in recent years.

Scott’s first trip to Victory Lane came last year at Bristol Motor Speedway’s annual night race with Busch, who also rocketed to a series-best five pole positions last season. Now he’ll work to forge a bond with Suarez, who says he won’t be bashful when it comes to learning the ropes in his new digs.

“I’m never shy to ask anything and I’m not a quiet guy, either, and I feel like he’s the same,” Suarez says. “The communication is going to be good back and forth. He’s a very good crew chief. He has shown that in the last couple of years. I’m really looking forward to learning from him and the rest of the group and to work hard to put the 41 car up front and hopefully put the car contending for victories, playoffs and who know what else. I feel like we’re going to start setting our goals as we go, but for sure, the expectations at least on my side, they’re high.”

The career transition also places Suarez behind the wheel of Ford’s new model for the 2019 Monster Energy Series — the Mustang. The model replaces the venerable Fusion, which won 19 of 36 races in its farewell season.

The Mustang’s graduation to the premier series level has been reason for anticipation within the Ford ranks as the circuit inches toward the Daytona 500 next month. But it’s also a motivating factor for Suarez, whose passion for classic cars has been well documented.

“I’m a car guy, so I’m extremely excited to drive a Ford Mustang,” Suarez said. “My dad’s first car actually was a Ford Mustang and I feel like it’s now a good excuse for myself to build one.”