There were three laps to go at Homestead Miami Speedway in November. Daniel Suárez’s number 19 car took the high side to take the lead at the start/finish line.
Sparks flew from Elliott Sadler’s car.
Two laps left! By the second turn, Suárez had a three-car-length lead, and he was in front when the field started the last lap.
As Suárez came out of the final turn of the final lap, he still had the lead, and when he crossed the finish line, no one was in front of him.
Suárez’s Joe Gibbs Racing team began celebrating! Suárez pumped his fist. Gibbs and the crew joined the celebration.
Finally, it was time for Suárez to do some well-earned donuts for the crowd.
He had won the race— sure. But he was also the 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, at only 24 years old.
By winning the Ford EcoBoost 300 that evening, he become the first Latin-American born NASCAR national series champion. Now, just three months later—at the Daytona 500 on February 26—he’ll make his debut in the sport’s top series.
Suárez was born in Monterrey, Mexico. “I got into racing when I was 11,” he said, “racing go-karts with my dad and a few friends.”
In 2011, he was part of a new program, NASCAR Next. This program helps drivers climb the sport’s ladder.
During this time, he participated in and fluctuated between the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and NASCAR Mexico.
“The NASCAR Next program was instrumental in helping me achieve my goals of racing in NASCAR,” Suárez said. “I was able to learn what it takes to be successful on and off the track.”
Suárez, who moved to the U.S. in 2012, learned English by watching kids’ cartoons and movies. “One of my goals was to watch two movies per day,” he said. “You can imagine how many movies I watched in a year.”
In 2013, he became part of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity, a program that tries to attract minorities and females to the sport.
Two years later, he began racing in the Xfinity Series for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR). Suárez was named 2015 Rookie of the Year and started from the pole position for the first time on July 4 at the Subway Firecracker 250 at Daytona.
Then last year he broke out—in a big way.
Similar to how Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs won 2015 NL Rookie of the Year, then won league MVP the following season, Suárez won the Rookie of the Year award in ’15 and the Xfinity Series in ’16.
His first win in 2016 was at Michigan after he passed Kyle Busch on the final lap. This made Suárez the first Mexican-born driver to win a national touring series race.
He won again during the Chase, at Dover, and with one race remaining, he was in the title hunt.
Then came that momentous finish at Homestead. And Suárez was still on the move.
On January 10, 2017, Joe Gibbs Racing announced that Suárez would be taking the place of Carl Edwards—who unexpectedly decided to retire—in the Monster Energy (formerly Sprint) Cup Series.
Suárez’s former teammate at JGR, Erik Jones, who finished fourth in the 2016 Xfinity Series, said that he thought Suárez was ready for the promotion.
“[His driving] has come a long way in the last year or so,” said Jones. “He’s worked hard to get to the point he’s at, to be at a competitive level in the XFinity Series, contending for wins every weekend and preparing himself for wins at the next level.”
Added Jones, “[He’s] fairly conservative in some ways and definitely waits for the right opportunity. He doesn’t get into too much trouble or make too many mistakes along the way, and he is usually there at the end of the day to try to make a run for it.”
Having refined his driving style, and armed with the confidence that came from winning the Xfinity Series, Suárez seems ready for the Daytona 500—and whatever his Cup career may bring.
Photographs by (from top): Sarah Crabill/Getty Images; Getty Images/NASCAR