(CNN) — The Daytona 500 has arrived, and with it so has a new generation in NASCAR. That includes a rookie who could be the next star in the sport — and who could attract fans south of the US border.
Daniel Suarez, 26, is originally from Monterrey, Mexico. He is the first Mexican-born competitor to race full time at NASCAR’s highest level. He also became the first foreign-born driver to win a NASCAR national title when he won the second-tier NASCAR Xfinity Series championship last season.
“To be part of the new generation of drivers and to be Latin American and from Mexico, it’s a huge deal for me to be the face of Latin America in this great sport that is NASCAR,” Suarez said Friday in an interview with CNN’s Don Riddell. “It’s a big deal. I’m just super excited to be here. I really feel like I have a lot of support on my side and (am) just looking forward to starting the season in a good way.”
When Suarez arrived in the US in 2012, he didn’t speak English. But he’s acclimated nicely both with the language and on the track. He won his first race in the US in 2013 in the K&N Pro Series East and earned a full-time spot with Joe Gibbs Racing in the Xfinity Series in 2015.
At the Cup level, Suarez has a huge void to fill. He takes over the No. 19 car, which was once occupied by veteran Carl Edwards, who shockingly left Joe Gibbs Racing last month. Now, Suarez all of a sudden is in a position to potentially win the NASCAR race that gets the most buzz.
“I’ve been working pretty much my entire life to be in this position, to be in a Cup car,” Suarez said, who in addition to the Daytona 500 also will race in the Xfinity Series event on Saturday. “Finally we got it done this 2017 with an amazing team with Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Racing. …So far it’s been a blast and (I’m) super excited to start the races this coming Sunday and Saturday.”
In an effort to boost ratings, NASCAR has introduced a new points system and playoff format. There’s also a new sponsor, with the top circuit now called the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Jimmie Johnson is going for a record eighth championship, and popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back after missing the final 18 races of the 2016 season because of a concussion. But there are big names, like Edwards and Tony Stewart, who won’t be behind the wheel this NASCAR season.
The sport is primed for a new star. Could it be Suarez? When asked about his chances of winning the Daytona 500, Suarez said he feels like he and his team “have a good shot.”
“My expectations are that I just need to be patient, try to learn as quick as possible in the first half of the race, being smart, and go out there the second half of the race and be aggressive,” Suarez said. “That’s the goal, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
There is one subject off limits for Suarez. And it’s one that’s very much in the news these days.
“I don’t really like politics,” Suarez said. “That has been since I was a child, since I was in school. I really don’t like politics very much. I realize there’s a lot going on right now, but I’m pretty comfortable in the position that we are as a community, in Latin America, and I feel pretty good about it.”
Suarez has been racing in the US for six years now. He is more comfortable sticking to topics about the track — and where he came from.
“Now, more than ever, I’m very proud to be from Mexico and to be Latin American,” he said.