The Daytona 500 is next weekend. When you tune in, watch for the No. 19 car, a bright orange 2018 Toyota Camry.
Behind the wheel will be a 25-year-old driver who’s knocking down barriers for Hispanic racers, one lap at a time.
His name is Daniel Suarez, and avid NASCAR fans have known about him for some time.
Suarez was the Xfinity Series Rookie of the Year in 2015, and 12 months later, became the first non-American to win a series championship.
Now, he’s in the big leagues. He’s taking over for Carl Edwards’ spot in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, and the 25-year-old from Monterrey, Mexico, can’t wait to participate in stock car’s signature race.
“Everything is happening so fast,” Suarez said Thursday during a visit to the Miami Herald newsroom. “Last November, we won the championship. We were still celebrating in December and then I received a call [about] moving up to Cup. Everything in the last few months has been super exciting. A lot has been going on. And at the same time, super happy and excited to start the season this weekend in Daytona.”
NASCAR has long wanted to expand beyond the United States, and in Suarez, they have the perfect ambassador: Young. Charismatic. Spanish speaking. And really good at his job.
While his career is still in its infancy, Suarez is already inspiring a new, younger generation of Hispanic drivers.
“He changed the perception of NASCAR drivers entirely, took it from a national sport to an international sport,” said Luis Rodriguez, a 22-year-old Cuban-American race car driver from Kendall. In Mexico, he’s a huge star and people are starting to watch. “More international sponsors will look at the sport with drivers like Suarez gaining popularity. He’s a fresh face. Latin American fans are starting to notice NASCAR. Hopefully, someday I can be like that, and help increase the fan base.”
Added Suarez: “I think that diversity has super important and NASCAR has that on the top of the list and I’m glad to be born in Mexico and have a lot of support from my country, obviously, and from the entire Latin American community.”
Suarez built that fan base in Mexico with his driving.
He picked up the sport as a hobby, and quickly proved to be a prodigy. He was kart racing at age 11, in NASCAR’s feeder system five years later, and has worked up the ladder ever since.
His career’s highlight: winning the Xfinity crown down the road last November.
“Yeah, I feel like that was yesterday, when we won the championship,” Suarez said. “It was a lot of fun. Maybe one of the more fun weekends of my career. Right now, I’m enjoying all the pictures and videos of that weekend with my family, with my friends, with my team. It was just an amazing weekend. Now, to have the opportunity to move up to the next level is something, I couldn’t ask for anything better. I feel I’m very lucky to be in this position and I’m really looking starting the 2017 season.”
That season begins with the Advance Auto Parts Clash in Daytona Saturday, and then the Daytona 500 a week later.
And he knows that he’ll have a good many people back home rooting for him.
“For me, it’s great to try to help the new generation of drivers,” Suarez said. “I was in that position 10 years ago, when I was 15. I had a lot of people help me out in this world. For me, it’s very good to give all these kids, these new talents a hand and maybe some advice, if it’s possible, to make their dreams.”
Miami Herald sportswriter Michelle Kaufman contributed to this report.