HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Daniel Suarez said he thought he had the money to keep his seat at Stewart-Haas Racing. The former Xfinity Series champion said he felt strongly he would be back in the No. 41 Ford next year.
Then he learned team co-owner Gene Haas had a change of heart.
Stewart-Haas Racing said it would replace Suarez in the Cup Series next year with Cole Custer, a 21-year-old prospect racing Saturday for the Xfinity championship on finale weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Suarez has now been fired twice in a year because his Cup team needed his seat to promote another driver. Joe Gibbs Racing released him last year because it had to clear space for driver Erik Jones.
Saying he had less than 36 hours to digest the news SHR was cutting him loose, Suarez praised the executives who worked hard to keep the only Mexican racer in NASCAR's national series in his seat.
"We pretty much got the goal, but unfortunately part of the money wasn't on the table at this point. It was going to come a few months later, and it wasn't enough," Suarez said. "I was 95% sure that we were in. I thought we were in good shape. I was extremely surprised."
Stewart made clear Friday that Haas controls the No. 41 team and the driver change was Haas' choice, but he said the organization supported the move. SHR will race for the Cup title Sunday with Kevin Harvick.
"Gene actually controls the 41 car, but we are all comfortable with the decision," Stewart said. "We feel like Cole has done a great job this year and has earned the right to be in the Cup Series. He deserves it. We still want to figure out how to help Daniel. I think he deserves to be in the Cup Series. It's just a matter of how do you fit it all in?"
Stewart noted that SHR essentially has a feeder system with its Xfinity program and developed Custer, so the promotion is the natural next step. There's no room in the four-car SHR lineup without getting rid of someone, and Suarez was the fall guy. Custer, a nine-time Xfinity Series race winner, has been in the SHR system and is the son of SHR executive Joe Custer. He was the Xfinity Series runner-up last season.
"Sometimes you get in scenarios like this where you've got more drivers than you have cars," Stewart said. "We wish we could have five cars, but we can't, so it puts us in this odd position to have to make a change like that. It's bittersweet."
Custer called it a "dream come true," while Suarez admitted his disappointment while noting that he had Stewart in his corner.
"He was talking to a lot of people, and he was pushing very hard for me," Suarez said. "Unfortunately the 41 team, and especially the 41, he doesn't have a lot that he can do with that car because the 41 is not his car. It just didn't work out."
Suarez won the Xfinity title driving for Gibbs in 2016 and was hastily promoted to the Cup Series the next season after Carl Edwards abruptly retired. He got two years in the No. 20 Toyota before Gibbs needed the slot to fulfill Jones' contract. At SHR, Suarez narrowly missed making the playoffs and goes into Sunday's season finale at Homestead 17th in the standings -- the highest a non-playoff driver can finish.
Stewart said Custer was ready for a promotion and even elevated his racing this season when asked to pick it up a notch.
"We love Daniel, we love what he does, but we also believe in Cole and believe this is the right time and his opportunity, and he's really made big gains this year," Stewart said. "We talked to him at the beginning of the season and said we need to see some improvement and see some gains, and not only did he respond to that, he responded with a bunch of wins this year and racing for a championship this weekend. The kid has earned his opportunity to get this ride for next year."