Daniel Suarez couldn’t tell you exactly why Charlotte Motor Speedway has been so good to him. But he sure isn’t complaining about it.
Suarez, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, got an invitation from Joe Gibbs to take over the No. 19 Toyota when Carl Edwards retired unexpectedly in 2017.
Four months later, Suarez was hitting the track for NASCAR’s longest race, for the first time in his career. He joked beforehand that he might need a sandwich during one of his pit stops. Whatever hunger he might have had didn’t affect him, though — in his Coca-Cola 600 debut, Suarez finished 11th.
Last weekend, Suarez just missed a victory in the NASCAR All-Star Race over Kevin Harvick. Although it wasn't a points race, the second-place finish was the best of Suarez’s Cup career.
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And after a strong performance in Thursday night’s qualifying, Suarez will start 10th on Sunday in the second 600 of his career. That’s a 10-spot improvement from last year, and another bullet point for Suarez’s Charlotte resume.
“You know, Charlotte has been a good place for me,” Suarez said with a smile. “I don’t know, it’s just one of those places that, for whatever reason, you feel comfortable and you get good results. And it seems like you build from that.”
A victory on Sunday would be the first in Suarez’s brief NASCAR Cup Series career. The 26-year-old has already set a few milestones along the way. In 2016, at the Xfinity Series race in Michigan, he became the first Mexican-born driver to win a race in a NASCAR national series.
Drive for Diversity reunion
Later that year, he secured the Xfinity Series Championship, which made him the first foreign-born driver to win a NASCAR national series title. And, by virtue of simply competing in the Coca Cola 600, he’ll set another milestone — with the help of two other drivers.
Since 2004, NASCAR has hosted the Drive for Diversity program in an attempt to improve minority representation in the sport. Suarez is an alumnus of the program. So are Bubba Wallace Jr., the first full-time black driver in NASCAR since 1971, and Kyle Larson, the Japanese-American driver who made the jump to the Cup Series in 2013.
With all three of these drivers in Sunday’s lineup, it’ll mark the first time three alumni of the program will compete in the Memorial Day race.
“It’s big,” Wallace said. “Being the leader on the forefront of that, with Suarez and Larson, we all kind of know the roles that we carry and what it’s like to be in that spotlight. I’m starting to see more minorities and just a different demographic at the race track and followers on social media, so it’s all continuing to grow.”
But, as Wallace also noted, the progress is incremental. According to research by The Undefeated, 62 drivers have participated in the Drive for Diversity program since its creation. Only three have gone to race full-time in the Cup Series — Suarez, Wallace and Larson. In total, only 10 participants competed somewhere within the top three levels of NASCAR racing.
“It’s not huge numbers that are flowing in, and it’s not going to happen like that,” Wallace said. “It’s all about word of mouth and getting one fan or one family out … to experience the excitement of this sport and what it has to offer and for them to go back and tell the next family.”
So, regardless of where Suarez finishes, that he is competing is significant. But obviously, he’s there to win.
He has mostly recovered from a left thumb fracture suffered in early April, and said it hasn’t given him any trouble in weeks. Last year, he leaned on advice from veterans within Joe Gibbs Racing for tips on getting through the 400 laps of the 600. This time around, he has his own experience in the 600 — as well as a slew of other races he hasn’t competed in before.
“The Cup Series is not easy at all,” he said. “That next step from running a top-10 car to running a top-five and being able to win races is a very difficult one, and it’s been taking me a while to make it right. We’ve been there — but not very consistent — so that’s my goal.”
On Sunday night at 6 p.m., Suarez will begin the 600 as a rising star.
And if things go his way, he might end it as a winner — for the first time in a career that doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon.