MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- Daniel Suarez wasn’t sure he would make it in NASCAR. When he first moved from Monterrey, Mexico, to the United States, in 2011, he had trouble adjusting.
The cars were different, and he had trouble focusing, as he would fly frequently to continue to race in Mexico as well. An even bigger factor: The language was different.
After two years of dabbling in stock cars in the United States and a year of living in the country -- competing in the regional K&N Pro Series -- he thought maybe he should return home.
“I wanted to race and to be successful, and I went to the K&N Series, and I didn't speak English, and I tried to do it by myself, and it just didn't work out,” Suarez said. “I was learning English, but I wasn't going anywhere. I was very, very close to going back to Mexico, to my country, because I just didn't feel like I was good enough.”
But then an opportunity arose for Suarez to drive for Rev Racing as part of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program, and he began to show promise, winning a race and finishing third in the standings in 2013.
“The second year, I gave myself another shot with the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program,” Suarez said. “The first year was a lot about adaptation, a lot of keep learning English, and by the second part of the year, we were winning races.
“We finished top three, like, seven times in a row, and we finished third in the championship. Everything started to get much, much better.”
Fast-forward three more years, and now Suarez is NASCAR’s first foreign-born champion. He captured the Xfinity Series -- the top national series for up-and-coming drivers in NASCAR -- title last month at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And this weekend, Suarez will be the grand marshall in an exhibition race signaling the relaunch of the NASCAR PEAK Mexico series, at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez in Mexico City.
Suarez drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, one of the top teams in NASCAR, and he has support of several companies as well as Carlos Slim’s family.
“This moment doesn't feel very real right now, but I really feel like we came a long way in a short period of time,” Suarez said. “I’m very proud of everyone that has been part of this process. ... Hopefully we can keep this up for whatever it's going to be in our future.”
While Suarez didn’t have as high a win total during 2016 as his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Erik Jones, who had four victories during the year, Suarez's competitors noticed his consistent performance.
By August, Jones had secured a Sprint Cup ride -- the highest level of racing in NASCAR -- for 2017. Suarez, though, was consistently running in the top 5 after earning his first career win in June at Michigan.
“He was leading the points in May, and I tried to tell you media guys, which y’all don’t listen,” said Elliott Sadler, one of the Xfinity Series championship finalists. “Y’all kept talking about Erik Jones this, Erik Jones that. And I kept telling y’all Daniel Suarez is the real deal over there.
“He was by far the best car for Gibbs, the most consistent car all year long. And we knew that as a race team. We knew who we were going to have to race coming down the stretch.”
His improvement was no surprise to Joe Gibbs, owner of the race team and a professional American football Hall of Fame coach.
“Daniel came up through the Mexican series, then K&N [with Drive for Diversity] and then, of course, some [in the] truck [series], and we saw him coming out of that, and [business manager] Jimmy Morales and Carlos were so sold on him and his talent that they made a big impression on us,” Gibbs said.
Suarez has Sprint Cup aspirations and hopes another year in the Xfinity Series defending his title will help him prepare.
“It's going to be pretty quick we'll be going to Cup,” Gibbs said. “I think it's in Daniel's hands, but obviously he's performed so well.
“As everybody knows, it's hard to get all that organized, but we're working. That's going to be our endgame. That's what we're going to be working for.”
Because of the way NASCAR is organized, Suarez already has competed against the best in the sport. He beat NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch head-to-head for that win at Michigan.
Busch owns vehicles that compete in NASCAR’s truck series, and Suarez has driven for him. He said he has received interest from other Hispanic drivers now looking for rides after Suarez's success.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re foreign, your color, you're female or anything,” Busch said. “It’s just the opportunity that you’re given, with the funding that you have, to be able to go out there to race and succeed and win.”
Suarez continues to immerse himself in the United States stock-car scene and goes to the JGR shop often. He will see Busch there and ask him questions. Sometimes he has to ask the same question over and over before totally understanding how to approach the track.
He hopes his team doesn’t get impatient as he continues to learn.
“As you guys know, I don't have any real family [or] my mom and dad in the U.S., so they are part of my American family,” Suarez said about his team. “I just live a few miles from the shop, and I go there almost every day because I really enjoy [being] there, and I learn a lot being there, learning about the car ... just being more connected and building that chemistry.”
That chemistry led to his winning the season’s final race and the championship with more than 30 friends and family in attendance. Suarez finished 2016 with three wins, three poles, 19 top-5s and 27 top-10s in 33 Xfinity Series events. He also won a race in NASCAR’s truck series.
“The very first time that I was going to move to the States, a lot of people told me it was going to be difficult because I was a Mexican driver, and nobody else made it happen in the past,” Suarez said.
“Right now, honestly, I can tell that to be a Mexican driver, Latin American driver, is something positive. I really feel like a lot of sponsors have a lot of support [for] me. They've been very interested to help me and to work with me, and that's something just great for me.”
In the days after winning the championship, Suarez could see just how much it meant, which included a tweet from Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto.
— Enrique Peña Nieto (@EPN) November 20, 2016
“It really means a lot,” Suarez said. “As you can imagine, it was a huge deal in Mexico and Latin America. Everyone was super, super excited -- it was something historic. It was something that a lot of people were waiting for.
“Finally, we got it done. It was something really cool. I’m ready to come back to Mexico and celebrate with some of my friends down there. I’m just very, very blessed.”
Suarez could end up being great for NASCAR, and NASCAR hopes to use Suarez as a role model for its diversity efforts.
NASCAR has yet to have a Hispanic driver who has come up through its diversity program make it to the Cup level full-time. Aric Almirola, who is of Cuban descent, came through a diversity program that Joe Gibbs Racing had started but no longer exists.
“Obviously, we're very proud of Daniel Suarez ... in an unbelievable run and winning the championship,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said. “Historic for the sport in many ways. I got some nice calls from people south of the border ... that are very proud of him, and we're very proud of him.”
France started the diversity program more than 10 years ago to give opportunities to women and minorities to race in NASCAR’s regional series and earn a spot with a team that competes at the U.S. national level.
“We're very proud that [Suarez’s championship] validates our diversity plan in a significant way,” France said. “All kinds of conversations on what we've said through the years is these things take time, to find the kind of talent that can actually compete at a high level on the biggest stages, and he's done that. So we're very proud of him.
“I would tell you, without the Drive for Diversity program, with certainty, Daniel Suarez is not in NASCAR. We're very pleased with that program.”
The feeling is mutual.
“I’m just enjoying the moment, having fun with life and having fun with this opportunity in racing,” Suarez said. “I’m trying to do my best.”