Monterrey, Mexico: home to over 1.1 million people and, now, one NASCAR champion.
At Homestead-Miami Speedway, Daniel Suarez made history becoming the first Latin American driver to win a NASCAR championship in the top three touring divisions, coming out on top in the XFINITY Series in 2016.
Suarez dominated at the season-ending XFINITY race at Homestead, leading 133 laps, the most circuits he’s ever paced in his young career. He began the race from the pole, concluding a season in which he qualified inside the top 10 for all 33 events.
The 23-year-old referenced the Homestead car as his “baby,” as it also won at Michigan International Speedway in June, passing Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch on the final lap. Along with Suarez’s victory at Dover International Speedway, leading 123 laps, the No. 19 team was arguably the most consistent team all season long.
At least, that’s what some of his toughest competition believed.
“You talk about Erik Jones this, Erik Jones that, Daniel Suarez is the real deal,” Elliott Sadler, championship runner-up, said. “He was by far the best car from Gibbs, the most consistent car all season long. We knew that as a race team. We knew who we were going to race coming down the stretch.”
The title has remained popular among the NASCAR community, as Suarez is known for being humble. Congratulatory greetings came quickly from other XFINITY Series regulars, including Jones, Justin Allgaier and Ty Dillon.
While Suarez is grateful of the response his championship has had, he was happy to fulfill a racing dream and fulfill the true definition of never giving up.
“This past week will be three nights that I never forget because it was the first time ever that I had my mom and dad together at a race,” Suarez told Frontstretch at the XFINITY Series awards banquet last month. “We won the pole, we won the race, we won the championship. We did everything right and it was unbelievable.
“It was a really good year for the No. 19 group and Joe Gibbs Racing. I’m very happy right now to be living a dream. Hopefully, I can enjoy this moment for a long time.”
Joe Gibbs Racing won 19 of the 33 races, led by Busch’s 10, Jones’ four and Suarez’s three. Denny Hamlin, meanwhile, had one, and Sam Hornish, Jr. had another. The team led more than 2,800 laps, by far exceeding the rest of the series.
But Suarez’s championship is something that other Latin American drivers failed to achieve in NASCAR. Juan Pablo Montoya is the most notable peer, winning two races in the Cup Series. But he achieved more success in the Verizon IndyCar Series, including two Indianapolis 500 victories.
A graduate of the NASCAR Drive For Diversity program, Suarez is proud to be a Latin American driver and knows that his victory is big for the country in which he was born.
“It was a huge deal in Mexico and Latin America,” Suarez said. “In Mexico, everyone was super excited about what happened. It was something a lot of people worked for and we were able to get it done. It was really cool. I’m excited to go back to Mexico and celebrate with some of my friends there that didn’t the opportunity to come to the race. I’m very grateful and thankful to God, my team and my sponsors for the opportunity.”
Suarez said that he will spend much of the offseason in Mexico and is excited to drive from his hometown back to his current home in Huntersville, North Carolina. And though he has seen many of his fellow Latin American competitors come up short of chasing success in NASCAR, he believes his title could lead to an outbreak of hope for Latin American drivers.
“The opportunities are here,” he said. “You have to find them and take advantage of them. I really feel like opportunities have been here for a long time, but for whatever reason things haven’t worked out for other drivers. I really believe drivers from Mexico and all over Latin America are going to come to this great sport.”
Since moving to America in 2011, Suarez reasoned with his decision of chasing NASCAR. His first move was to Buffalo, New York, and right away he questioned if it was the move for him.
“Pretty close,” Suarez said when asked if he ever thought of calling it quits. “I was ready to come back. My dad told me just to be me and find a little money for help. Things actually started to work out in my last shot and my last opportunity and here we are.”
Now, he’s driving for Joe Gibbs, one of the pioneer car owners of NASCAR. That adversity landed him with the excellent opportunity he has today.
Can the new champion show the way for others? Currently, Mexico is facing problems with corruption, crime, and a sluggish economy among other insecurities. But now the country is looking at Suarez as one of its leaders. Following his victory at Homestead, he received a tweet from Enrique Pena Nieto, president of Mexico, congratulating him on his feat.
— Enrique Peña Nieto (@EPN) November 20, 2016
“I think I’m getting there,” Suarez said of being a role model for Mexico and Latin America. “I’m trying to be myself, do hard work and do the best that I can. A lot of Latin America drivers are trying to do the same thing.”
As for 2017, Suarez has yet to give it any thought, but it’s likely he runs a third full-time season in the XFINITY Series for Joe Gibbs Racing. The last driver to win back-to-back XFINITY Series titles was Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in 2011 and 2012.