When Steve deSouza sat in the press center at Michigan International Speedway on June 11 and boasted that his company has seen “this” in driver Daniel Suarez long before the 24-year-old’s first major NASCAR triumph, it was the only way the president of Xfinity development for Joe Gibbs Racing could sum up the intangibles that played out in historic fashion that afternoon.
In the Xfinity Series’ Menards 250, Suarez did everything those who carry his level of hype are supposed to do. He showed the coolness to shake off a pit-road speeding penalty and work his way up from 25th. He showed the car control needed to reel in teammate and reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup series champion Kyle Busch over the final laps and, when it came time to close the deal against one of the toughest wheelmen in the sport to pass, Suarez did so in the determined, yet clean, fashion that earns widespread respect around the garage.
“Today was a long time coming, but we expected it would happen at some point,” deSouza said. “He’s pursuing (his dreams) with a passion and checking some big boxes here.”
It was in the moments and days after Suarez became the first Mexican-born driver to win a NASCAR national series race that the full brunt of his class became as obvious as his talent. For the better part of two months now, he has been the first foreign-born driver to lead the points in any of the three main NASCAR series, currently holding a six-point advantage in the Xfinity standings heading into Friday’s Alsco 300 at Kentucky Speedway.
He is well aware that whatever he achieves resonates far beyond himself and his team. It is an added responsibility Suarez has been proud to shoulder at a time when he could easily be crushed by the weight of expectations.
First and foremost, Suarez is a driver on the rise. A native of Monterrey, Mexico, Suarez began racing go-karts as a hobby when he was 11 but has been on a definitive trajectory upward — from his success in NASCAR’s Mexico Series when he notched 10 wins in 58 starts from 2011-14 to being selected in 2011 as part of the inaugural class of NASCAR’s Next initiative, a program created to indentify up-and-coming drivers.
If I was an upcoming driver from Mexico, in the Mexican series, or the national series from the U.S., I would be very excited. I would be very excited there is another Mexican driver, Latin American driver, in the national series doing something right.
In winning the 2015 Xfinity Rookie of the Year title in his first full season for Joe Gibbs Racing and backing that up with six top-five finishes in 15 starts this year, Suarez has also become very much an ambassador for NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity developmental program, which he was also tabbed to be part of in 2013. It is not lost on him how fortunate he has been to have opportunity present itself at every point in his development.
And as Suarez continues to check off milestones, he is mindful of the fact that his bursting through barriers will open doors for others.
“If I was an upcoming driver from Mexico, in the Mexican series, or the national series from the U.S., I would be very excited,” Suarez said. “I would be very excited there is another Mexican driver, Latin American driver, in the national series doing something right.
“Hopefully this can help to show more young drivers out there that they are doing good things and they are trying to follow a dream. Hopefully that can help to give them a little bit more confidence to come here to the U.S., to get the support from NASCAR. Really, I had a lot of support from NASCAR when I came here to the U.S., in the beginning of my racing career, trying to make it happen. I really feel proud to be in this position right now.”
Opportunity no matter how great becomes moot if not taken advantage of. After knocking on the door with 12 top-five finishes in the Xfinity Series without a win prior to Michigan, Suarez admits he got caught up listening to those predicting when his breakout victory would come and made the conscious decision to dial back the pressure he was putting on himself to get that checkered flag.
That “just-go-race” attitude came through on June 11. In addition to overcoming a pit-road penalty, Suarez battled problems with the clutch that caused his No. 19 Toyota to stall during a green-flag stop on Lap 71.
With his team keeping the car dialed in and driving with just the right mix of finesse and desperation, Suarez got the monkey of his first major NASCAR win off his back when he edged Busch by a .281-second margin at the line.
“I think the first one is always the most difficult to get in every series, pretty much in everything,” Suarez said. “I stopped thinking about it. I just tried hard to make it happen, but taking the pressure out. It’s exactly how things start to work out better.
“We finally got that one (win). So from now on, hopefully we can keep this momentum. We can start building our confidence as a group, the whole team, and move forward.”
Suarez will need to get his forward push back Friday as a wreck at Daytona last weekend left him with a 32nd-place finish and shrunk his advantage in the standings over Elliott Sadler. As with most of his career to this point, however, he has proven to be a quick study over the Sparta tri-oval, finishing fourth in both the Truck Series race and Xfinity race at Kentucky last July.
“We have a different team than we had last year, we changed some important pieces of our team for 2016 and … I think one of the most important things for me and my team was to start building that chemistry and communication to try to be better,” Suarez said. “Right now, every week we go to the racetrack we have fast cars and have shots to run at the front and to win races. And the closer we get to the last race of the season, we’re going to be stronger with that chemistry and communication.”
Xfinity points leaders
1. Daniel Suarez, 499
2. Elliott Sadler, 493
3. Ty Dillon, 483
4. Justin Allgaier, 462
5. Brendan Gaughan, 449
6. Erik Jones, 442
7. Brandon Jones, 429
8. Brennan Poole, 422
9. Darrell Wallace Jr., 394
10. Ryan Reed, 366
Thursday night’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Kentucky Speedway ended too late to make the paper. Visit our website for the results.