Forget Top Gun Maverick, in the world of NASCAR it’s Team Trackhouse that feels like the feelgood movie of the summer. In a Cup Series where giants like Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske field their star-studded jet jockeys, Trackhouse is the plucky little squadron that put them all in its sights and shot ’em down in flames.
Formed by Justin Marks, an ex-race car driver himself in GTs, ARCA, Trucks and Xfinity Series, and partnered by Armando Christian Perez, aka the rapper Pitbull, and former DEI man Ty Norris, it’s come a long way in just 18 months.
Marks put his faith in Mexico’s Daniel Suarez, the 2016 Xfinity Series champion and only non-American born driver to win a major NASCAR title. After joining the Cup Series with Gibbs, Suarez struggled to make an impression and his career at the top level appeared to be floundering as he hopped from team to team and slid further down the grid – before Trackhouse started to happen.
Daniel Suarez, Gaunt Brothers Racing, Toyota Camry Toyota Certified Used Vehicles
Photo by: Russell LaBounty / NKP / Motorsport Images
“I knew in 2020 that I had hit bottom,” Suarez admits of his season with minnow team Gaunt Brothers Racing. “I have only hit rock bottom in my life a couple of times, and that was one of them. In my mind, it couldn’t get any worse than that.
“Since I joined the Cup Series, after winning the Xfinity title, it was never stable, it was never what I wanted. It just didn’t feel right. So 2020 was my year to reset. It was horrible on the racetrack but it made me who I am now, it made me tougher. I knew it couldn’t get any worse. After that, Trackhouse came to the table.”
Trackhouse was starting from ground zero as a startup team, in the final season of the Gen-7 NASCAR machinery. After a frustrating beginning in the 2021 Daytona 500, when Suarez was taken out in the first big wreck of the marquee race, a fourth-placed finish on the dirt in Bristol showed this diminutive team’s appetite for running with the big boys.
This was followed up by a handful of top 10 performances that were highly impressive for a one-car team – a vast improvement from his “rock bottom” season. Things were looking up.
After a difficult few years in Cup, Suarez took a leap of faith with Trackhouse
Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images
The true game changer happened in August, when Marks announced that Trackhouse had purchased Chip Ganassi Racing’s NASCAR operation ahead of the 2022 season. Ganassi’s team had consistently underperformed in Cup (compared with Chip’s huge success elsewhere) and this was a transaction that suited all parties. After operating from a corner of Richard Childress Racing’s shop, now Trackhouse would have a crib of its own.
Soon after that deal was done, I spent last September’s Southern 500 at Darlington on the Trackhouse pit box. I was treated to an amazing, up-close insight into how it operates and, in particular, what struck me was the communication between Suarez, his crew chief Travis Mack and spotter Frank Kimmell II.
Keeping on top of an ever-changing track was their challenge; the race started in blazing-hot late afternoon sunshine and ran into the middle of the night. Just staying on the lead lap was clearly not going to be easy, as the pace at the front was unrelenting around the ‘Lady in Black’.
“I have only hit rock bottom in my life a couple of times, and  was one of them. In my mind, it couldn’t get any worse than that” Daniel Suarez
Suarez might’ve been alone in the cockpit but in Kimmel he had an extra set of eyes atop of the grandstand, to coach his line as well as inform who was around him. Owner Marks spent most of his time on the ground level – occasionally hopping up the ladder to check in with Mack, who was orchestrating the whole show from just in front of me, and you could feel the tension as each decision was crucial to the next run’s outcome.
Keeping track of tyre pressure changes was achieved the old-fashioned way, with Mack using a whiteboard and marker pen, as well as a laptop and a notebook on hand as reference from previous races. Eyes were glued to the timing screen as much as the racetrack, but the two aspects that caught my eye were a strategy app – suggesting whether the next stop should be four tyres or two – and the SportsMEDIA Technology (SMT) data, where Suarez’s car could be compared to any other rival in realtime to show whether he was trending favourably or not.
A behind-the-scenes view of Suarez at Darlington in 2021, with crew chief Travis Mack
Photo by: Charles Bradley
Having been lapped, Mack rolled the dice on strategy, hanging Suarez out for a painfully long run on worn tyres and then striking lucky by benefitting from the salvation of the free pass under the fortunately-timed caution he’d been praying for. That resulted in a stout 13th-placed finish, after four hours of hard racing, while Marks also had something else to cheer: Ganassi Racing finished third (with Ross Chastain) and sixth.
After the race, there was a quick debrief between Suarez and Mack about what went right and what they could’ve done better; Daniel’s car looking relatively spotless compared to Bubba Wallace’s heavily Darlington-striped Toyota Camry parked next to it.
Daniel Suarez debriefs with Travis Mack at TrackHouse Racing
Photo by: Charles Bradley
While we waited for Ryan Blaney’s man to return on a golf cart, that had just whisked Ryan and his dog to his waiting car, I babbled to Suarez about the insight I’d just received and explained some of the incidents that I’d seen that shaped the race.
I suggested that 12th would’ve been the absolute maximum he could’ve achieved. “Just wait until next year,” he smiled knowingly. “You’ll see what positions we’ll be racing for then.”
I remind him of this on a call on Tuesday, as he took time out from celebrating his victory with family in Monterrey, Mexico.
“I’ve always felt very confident in myself,” says Suarez. “I know what I can do, I know I can drive, and I know I can beat those other guys. I’ve been getting stronger, both physically and mentally, but it takes a lot of put in the ground to get to this point.
“I knew that you have to have the right car and the right people. And I knew that the Next Gen car was the perfect storm for somebody like me. Because I’m the kinda guy who doesn’t say ‘gimme the best stuff to win’ I say ‘just gimme the same stuff as the others’.
“If it wasn’t for the Next-Gen car, I wouldn’t be here [winning], Trackhouse wouldn’t be here. Ross probably either. That is why I had so much confidence in my guys and excitement about this year.”
And it shows. Combined with the advent of the Next Gen, the purchase of CGR was perfectly timed by Marks. The momentum that built last year – every oak grows from an acorn – has had somewhere to go. The addition of the #1 car, with the hugely-aggressive Chastain keeping his ride, if not making many on-track friends this season, has paid back Marks’ substantial investment.
Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez, TrackHouse Racing teammates
Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images
Chastain won Trackhouse’s first Cup race at COTA in March – after first stage dominator Suarez’s steering broke after he was punted into a spin on a restart – and ‘The Melon Man’ promptly repeated the feat at Talladega.
Suarez won the NASCAR Open event at Texas, the precursor to the All-Star race, but a bona fide Cup Series victory proved painfully elusive – especially given the success of his teammate – until Sunday’s flawlessly-executed race victory in Sonoma.
The emotion flowed freely, with Marks declaring: “Daniel Suarez, Travis Mack helped to build Trackhouse. They’ve been working so hard together, been so focused, so dedicated to get to Victory Lane – I’m so proud of them.”
“If it wasn’t for the Next-Gen car, I wouldn’t be here [winning], Trackhouse wouldn’t be here. Ross probably either. That is why I had so much confidence in my guys and excitement about this year” Daniel Suarez
With victory comes a place in the playoffs, and Suarez’s first shot at a NASCAR title since that jubilant night in Homestead in 2016, when he rather shocked the establishment then too. And, for Trackhouse, it adds a second bullet to its gun in the post-season – providing crucial knowledge as it accelerates its learning.
Let’s look at the bigger picture. For NASCAR, it now has a Mexican race winner in its ranks – very useful should it ever choose to take its show to Mexico City’s Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez – as well as Pitbull’s involvement in the ownership that brings an altogether different element to its fan demographic. Suarez’s fan club – Daniel’s Amigos – has brought more and more Latino fans to the track.
It also returns on the investment of Mexican motorsport patriarch Carlos Slim Domit, the super-sharp businessman who has believed in Suarez since Day 1 of his NASCAR journey. Carlos once told me, in his amazing boardroom in Mexico City seven years ago, to keep my eye on him!
And, of course, coming soon is Trackhouse’s #91 third car – to be driven by none other than 2007 Formula 1 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen. The Iceman will have a car at his disposal that’s certainly capable of doing great things on a road course…
Can a certain Iceman make it three Trackhouse winners in 2022?
Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images