Dave Rogers embraces shot at history every race with Daniel Suarez

Photo courtesy of NASCAR/Getty Images

By Yvonne Jones, Staff Writer

Dave Rogers doesn’t know a whole lot about Daniel Suarez. But he’s aware every time he goes to the track with the rookie, history could happen.

Formerly Carl Edwards’ crew chief, Rogers will now call the shots for Suarez, who is replacing Edwards in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 Toyota in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017. Suarez will become the first Mexican-born driver to race full-time in NASCAR’s No. 1 series when the season begins with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 26.

And Rogers reminded his No. 19 crew, equally blindsided by Edwards’ decision to step away, that the potential for more firsts is there.

“Like I told them, I said how many times have you ever been put in a situation where you know for a fact that what you do can be part of history? You know, every time we go to the race track with Daniel,” Rogers said in an interview with Claire B. Lang on SiriusXM’s ‘Dialed In’ on Wednesday.

Last season, Suarez became the first Latin American driver to win a NASCAR national series championship when he clinched the Xfinity Series title at Homestead. He is also the first Mexican-born driver to win a race in one of NASCAR’s top three series and lead the points standings.

“Daniel is doing things and he’s been doing things throughout his career that are historical,” Rogers said. “The 19 team? We get to jump on board and be part of that. That’s exciting.”

“We are sad to see Carl go and he’ll always be part of the 19 family. But man this is an exciting opportunity to work with Daniel and to get his career kicked off. And we want to do it right. We want to give him cars every bit as good as what we would have given Carl and that’s our goal.”

But first, the team will have to tailor the car to Suarez’s comfort. It also needs to decide on who will participate in the open test session at Phoenix International Raceway on Jan. 31. Rogers said it was being considered that Edwards would attend to be sort of a tutor for the 25-year-old Suarez.

“Carl is a great asset,” Rogers said. “Yes, I need to learn Daniel, but Daniel needs to learn me. And there is probably nobody better that knows me better than Carl. And there is nobody that knows racecars from the seat as good as Carl. So Carl is a great conduit.

“But whether Carl can make the test or not, those are logistics that haven’t been put together.”

Rogers, who will be in the ear of a different JGR driver for the fourth straight season – Kyle Busch (2009-14), Denny Hamlin (2015), Edwards (2016) –  said the team also has to learn the 2017 aero package, which he called a ‘different animal’ despite using it in a few races in 2016.

He said the goals for Suarez will be ‘very modest.’

“We are not gonna go out there and expect to win two out of the first three races,” the 42-year-old crew chief said. “But we are gonna allow Daniel some freedom. We are gonna allow him to make some rookie mistakes. We are gonna support him and love on him and let him know we have his back.”

Rogers said he will bring young Suarez along with realistic plans.

“Early in the season we are gonna do our best to bring cars capable of winning the race,” he explained. “Then when we get to the middle of the season, we are gonna start to try to increase our performance a little bit and start to push each other to capture that win. And if you can do that, you are in the Chase.”

Rogers makes it clear he’s still ‘pretty upset’ about Homestead after coming within 10 laps of potentially winning the title behind Edwards last year. He said with Edwards, the ‘focal point’ in 2017 would have been to win 10 races.

“But it’s unreasonable to have that goal with Daniel,” Rogers said. “We need to give him some time to grow.”

And Suarez is capable of it. In fact, Rogers said he learned that from watching Suarez even before he was in a Joe Gibbs car. The former race engineer said he had heard rumblings that Suarez might be joining the Toyota family and began to zero in on the prospect a number of years ago.

“I watched him I remember, I think it was Kentucky,” Rogers recalled. “I remember watching and going that kid is fast; he’s fast but he made a couple mistakes during the race and I’m like, he’s young.”

“Then I watched him get into our Xfinity car and the thing that stands out is his growth. He deserves to be the 2016 Xfinity champion. He didn’t back into that; that wasn’t given to him. That wasn’t luck. He outperformed the competition.”

Winless in 2015 in his first year in the Xfinity Series, Suarez notched three victories and finished 2016 with 19 top 5s and 27 top 10s.

“He wasn’t in a spot in his career to do that two years ago,” Rogers pointed out. “So in my mind, in two years he grew more than, I think, more than anyone should expect a driver to grow.”

“That’s my impression of Daniel. And watching how he did it, I think he’s an extremely hard worker. I think he’s relentless in his pursuit of this dream. I think he is all in. And that’s about what I know about Daniel Suarez.”

To Rogers, that’s ‘enough for me to believe in him and commit to him to help springboard his career in the Cup series.’

How soon will the results come? Rogers doesn’t know, but hopes the team can find the right balance between expectations and reality.

“It may come faster than what I can envision and it may come slower than what I envision,” Rogers said. “But we just have to be very disciplined and very methodical to not put too much pressure on ourselves and not to cut ourselves too much slack and say, we have a rookie it’s OK not to perform because this is a performance-based industry.”

One thing is certain, Rogers’ team — fresh off a championship run — is embracing the opportunity Suarez brings.

“I’m excited for Daniel,” he said. “Carl helped us build an extremely strong race team and he gave the keys to Daniel. “We are looking forward to making a lot of history with that young man in 2017.”

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