Like their fellow NASCAR Cup Series competitors and the legions of fans who embrace their sport, Daniel Suárez and his teammates on the No. 96 Today. Tomorrow. Toyota Camry for Gaunt Brothers Racing (GBR) are eager and excited to resume the 2020 season at Sunday’s Darlington 400, which comes more than two months since the previous event March 8 at Phoenix Raceway.
At the same time, the series arrives at the 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval at Darlington (S.C.) International Raceway for Sunday’s 400-mile race with great respect for the responsibility that comes with being part of one of the first live major North American sporting events to take place since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The return to racing will take place in an environment meticulously designed to ensure the safety of competitors and those in the surrounding communities as NASCAR collaborated with public health officials, medical experts and state and federal officials in significantly modifying its event procedures. Each of the first four Cup Series races announced thus far – Sunday’s 400-mile race followed by a 310-miler at Darlington May 20, the annual Memorial Day-weekend Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway March 24, and a 310-miler March 27 at Charlotte – is a one-day show within driving distance of the North Carolina race shops to minimize time spent in the local communities. Several procedural adjustments have been put in place to reduce health risks, including conducting the races without fans in attendance, eliminating large gatherings and meetings involving competitors and series personnel, mandating the use of protective equipment, health screenings for all individuals prior to entering and exiting the facilities, and maintaining social distancing protocols throughout each event.
When Suárez and his fellow competitors strap themselves into their respective racecars Sunday, they will have fast-forwarded straight to the 3:30 p.m. EDT race without the usual complement of practice time and qualifying, also in an effort to reduce health risks for everyone involved. That has placed even more of a premium on the always important preparation time teams put in at their respective race shops leading up to each event, particularly as they head to one of the trickiest racetracks on the NASCAR schedule.
It will be just the fourth race outing for the one-car GBR operation, which on Jan. 28 announced it would tackle the full 36-race campaign for the first time in its 10-year history in NASCAR. And the team, which this week welcomed longtime motorsports veteran Nick Ollila as its technical director to bolster the efforts of veteran crew chief Dave Winston, is looking to continue the positive momentum it left off with after its modest 21st-place result at Phoenix on the heels of finishes of 30th and 28th at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Auto Club Raceway in Fontana, California, respectively.
The downtime has given the team the chance to incorporate simulation technology into its preparation efforts, as well as to further refine and optimize its shop processes and procedures, which Suárez, Winston and Ollila expect will have an immediate impact on their ability to unload a competitive Toyota Camry at each race stop, particularly with practice and qualifying curtailed for the initial slate of races.
Suárez, whose No. 96 Today. Tomorrow. Toyota Camry will feature a special salute to the medical heroes who have been fighting on the front lines during the global pandemic, will be making his fourth career Darlington start in the Cup Series Sunday, and his most recent outing in last September’s Southern 500 was the best of his previous three. He qualified fifth and nearly cracked the top-10 with an 11th-place result in the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing entry. He also posted third-place finishes in both career starts there in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, most recently during his run to the series championship in 2016.
As the team and the rest of the NASCAR community ease their way back into the 2020 schedule Sunday, they’ll relish the opportunity to deliver action and excitement for the television audience of sports fans, who have been hungry for the return of live competition.