There’s nothing like a little West Coast Swing to kick start the fortunes of the newest full-time competitors in the NASCAR Cup Series garage – the No. 96 Toyota Certified Used Vehicles Camry of Gaunt Brothers Racing (GBR) and its driver, Mexico native Daniel Suárez.
The second, third and fourth stops on the 2020 Cup Series tour are on tap the next three weekends and take Suárez and his new teammates to three distinctly different racetracks, but all situated in desert-like surroundings similar to his hometown of Monterrey, the capital of the Northern Mexico state of Nuevo León.
This year’s West Coast Swing begins with Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway 1.5-mile oval, continues March 1 with the Auto Club 400 on the ultrafast 2-mile Auto Club Speedway oval in Fontana, California, and concludes March 8 with the FanShield 500k on the tricky Phoenix Raceway mile oval.
It will be the first, full West Coast Swing for the GBR team, which joined the NASCAR Cup Series ranks as a part-time competitor in 2017 and is taking on the full slate of 36 points-paying races for the first time in 2020. The No. 96 Toyota team has twice graced the Las Vegas oval, starting 35th and finishing 25th with driver Jeffrey Earnhardt in the September 2018 race, and starting 32nd and finishing 31st with driver Parker Kligerman in last year’s March race. The team will be competing at Fontana for the first time this year, while its only previous Phoenix appearance was in March 2018, when D.J. Kennington qualified 34th and finished 31st.
Suárez, meanwhile, is a veteran of West Coast Swings, having made the annual trek to the Nevada-California-Arizona desert for the back-to-back-to-back races since his first full NASCAR Xfinity Series season in 2015. He had a particularly solid run during his 2016 Xfinity Series championship season, when he posted finishes of second, third and fourth at Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana, respectively.
This weekend, Suárez is eyeing his sixth career Cup Series appearance at Las Vegas, where he has an average start of 14.4, an average finish of 18.2, and 42 laps led. Last September, he qualified on the front row and led 29 of the first 30 laps of the 267-lap race, finishing fourth in the opening stage and maintaining his position in the top-15 through the second stage. But then, on a lap-185 restart, he was caught in a multicar pileup that damaged his racecar. After pitting for repairs, he was able to conserve fuel enough to salvage a 20th-place finish. Suárez also led 12 laps in last year’s March race en route to a 17th-place finish from the 22nd starting position.
Suárez’s crew chief Dave Winston, a veteran of 61 Cup Series races atop the pit box, called the shots at two previous races on the Las Vegas oval. He collaborated with driver Alex Bowman and the No. 23 BK Racing Toyota on a 37th-place finish in the March 2014 race, and with Michael McDowell and the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing entry on a 29th-place finish in the March 2016 race.
As they head west for the first time this season with their new-look GBR team for 2020, Suárez, Winston and their No. 96 Toyota Certified Used Vehicles Camry look to rebound in a big way from last weekend’s abrupt ending to their bid to make the season-opening Daytona 500 field. With their seasoned cast and crew giving it their all, it’s a good bet that good things just might happen in Las Vegas.