By Seth Livingstone, NASCAR Wire Service
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Team owner Joe Gibbs sees Daniel Suárez as a big part of the future – not only for NASCAR but for his team.
Part of the equation is about the 23-year-old’s talents as the driver who just earned Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in the NASCAR XFINITY Series. Suárez moved up to fifth in the final series standings with his sixth-place effort in Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But a lot of it is about how Suárez got to that point, advancing through NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program to become a factor in both the XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series this year.
“It’s exciting for our sport,” Gibbs said. “I don’t think I’ve been in any business meeting the last five years where (somebody) didn’t say ‘We’ve got to reach the Hispanic market.’ It’s a big deal for us to have Daniel onboard.
“It helps me from the standpoint that I want to be a good partner in every part of NASCAR. We’ve been heavily involved in the (Drive for) Diversity program with a number of different guys. We think it’s good for our sport. I know it is. I think our sport belongs in every part of the market in America and I think this is a big step.”
Suárez is the first Hispanic driver and second Drive for Diversity product to win Sunoco Rookie of the Year in one of NASCAR’s national series. Although he didn’t win an XFINITY race, he won three Coors Light Pole Awards, recorded 18 top-10 finishes and placed second to Joey Logano at Bristol Motor Speedway.
“It’s been a long journey so far, but a very fun one,” Suárez says. “We had a goal early in the year to get the Rookie of the Year, be strong and try to contend for some wins. We didn’t win, but we were close several times. We ran in the front. I don’t think it was a surprise to see the ARRIS No. 18 in the front, which for me was something really good.”
Suárez, has been fast ever since arriving on the scene from Monterrey, Mexico, where he was accustomed to open-wheel racing and road courses, not ovals. He was Rookie of the Year in NASCAR’s Mexico Series in 2010. Advancing to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East for Rev Racing, he placed third in the 2013 standings with nine top-10 finishes.
But he’s also had a lot to learn – from mastering the English language to mastering how to handle NASCAR’s race cars and tracks.
“These cars are different,” he says. “They are so aero-dependent and to move around the race track, I’m not used to that. When I was racing in Mexico, you used to start in one line and I was used to staying in that lane. So, all this is new to me.”
Saturday’s race was a tribute to how far Suárez has come. After qualifying on the front row, he dropped all the way to 16th, a lap down, after his team was penalized for a loose tire in the pits. Clawing his way back into contention, he was one of only 10 finishers on the lead lap. His sixth-place finish enabled him to bump veteran Elliott Sadler (13th) from the fifth and final seat at Monday night’s XFINITY championship banquet.
Still, Suárez, who gained additional experience by driving 13 races for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series, knows he has a long way to go.
“There is a huge difference between racing fast, racing in the front and winning a race,” he says. “And this is one of the steps I have to make for next year. This was one of my goals for this year. I didn’t get that one. So in the offseason I am looking forward to working as hard as possible with my team to take that next step and win races.”
As for a chance to drive in the Sprint Cup Series, Suárez believes that will come in due time.
“I feel if I’m in the right place and with the right people to make that step at the right time,” he said, “But for now we need to focus on what we’re doing right now.”
His owner will be watching closely.
“We are really proud of Daniel,” Gibbs said. “He has done a fantastic job both on and off the track and I know ARRIS and Toyota are extremely excited to have him earn this honor.
“He has been consistent throughout the year but also showed improvement each week and that really showed up as he returned to tracks for a second time. He has put a lot into this and I’m just thrilled for him and his family, the team, and everyone that supports him, both here and back in Mexico.”
Image: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images