Daniel Suarez already displayed adaptability in overcoming the culture shock of moving from his native Mexico to Huntersville, N.C., to pursue a career in NASCAR.
A graduate of the Driver for Diversity program, he showed his talent in earning Rookie of the Year honors in the Xfinity Series in 2015. Saturday, the 24-year-old Suarez became the first Latin American driver to win a NASCAR national series championship as he claimed the title of the second-tier series at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Suarez surged past fellow Championship 4 competitor Elliott Sadler off the final restart with three laps remaining in the Ford EcoBoost 300 and pulled away for his third career win to seize the title.
“When I was 18 years old I was racing in Mexico, winning races. My parents gave me the opportunity to move to the U.S., to learn English, to start a new life,” Monterrey native Suarez said. “I learned English watching cartoons.”
Suarez had about 30 relatives watching his run to glory, including his mother in the pits and his father in the stands.
“It is very hard to put into words,” Suarez said. “I’m just proud of everyone, very thankful to have the family I have. They gave me all the tools I need to be here right now. They supported me and right now we’re living a dream.”
Suarez’s Joe Gibbs Toyota was the fastest car all day as he qualified on the pole and then showed the ability to get to the front and withstand challenges throughout the race. He led 133 of the 200 laps on the 1.5-mile oval.
Erik Jones, Suarez’s Joe Gibbs teammate, was closing the gap in second with 10 laps to go when Ray Black Jr. spun, bringing out the final caution.
The restart found non-contender Cole Whitt, who didn’t pit, in the top spot. Whitt caused a bottleneck when he was slow to get started after the green flag dropped, blocking Jones.
That left Suarez to contend with Sadler, who made a two-tire gamble to get in position for the final dash. Sadler ended third behind Ty Dillon, who was not in the title chase.
“We called for two tires; it was the only shot we had,” Sadler said. “I just wish I did a better job on that restart.”
Jones, who finished ninth, was upset with Whitt for clogging the restart. But team owner Gibbs was thrilled with the rise to champion by Suarez, who joined the team two years ago.
“For us in two years to be where we are tonight, we’re just really proud,” Gibbs said. “This is going to be a big deal, I think, for our sport.”
During the Chase for the Sprint Cup Series title, Jimmie Johnson has been wearing a tribute on his helmet to the two drivers he is chasing in history. The rear of his blue helmet has pictures of Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty flanking the message “Chasing 7.”
Johnson will tie the legendary pair if he can claim his seventh Sprint Cup title Sunday.
The Lowe’s Chevrolet driver said matching the accomplishments of Petty and Earnhardt has been motivational as he progressed through the elimination series.
“We’ve had it since the Chase has started, and we just wanted to pay respect to Dale and to Richard,” Johnson said. “It’s been cool to wear it. It’s definitely been getting some attention and, honestly, it’s just out of respect to those two guys. I’m glad everybody has been so excited to see it and talking so much about it.”
Carl Edwards was the swiftest of the Championship 4 drivers in the final Sprint Cup practice session Saturday afternoon as he ranked second behind Martin Truex’s 174.289 mph pace.
Joey Logano was eighth, Johnson 10th and Edwards’ Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch 14th.
Johnson turned in the top speed in the morning session at 174.345 in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevy.
Edwards is chasing the demon of bitter disappointment in the 2011 season-finale at Homestead-Miami when he lost the series title to Tony Stewart on a tiebreaker.
Edwards began this week in a hotel room in New York where he was flipping through TV channels and happened upon a rebroadcast of the race in which he led the most laps but finished second to Stewart, who claimed his third and final title.
“At first I thought, ‘Man, I don’t want to watch this,’ ” Edwards said. “Then I watched it and I thought, ‘This is good for me. I need to get to remember what that was like and get a glimpse and a view of how important this is,’ and it really was.”
Sunday is the fifth anniversary of that closest championship finish in NASCAR history and will also be Stewart’s final Sprint Cup race.
In a show of respect to his rival, Edwards revealed this week that he recently gave the helmet he wore in that race to Stewart.
“I watched him on my way up,” Edwards said. “To see him progress and to finally be able to battle him, that was a lot of fun.”
Carl’s new clothes
It has already been an eventful week for Edwards, whose motorhome broke down and didn’t make it to Homestead. That left him with only the clothes he was wearing when he arrived Thursday.
With an event to attend on a sponsor’s yacht that night in Miami, Edwards got a police escort to Macy’s for a hasty shopping spree.
“I said, ‘Man, I’m panicked. I’ve got to be on a yacht in like 15 minutes, I need something nice to wear,’ ” said Edwards, who managed to get fitted for something suitable to replace what he described as “my standard Carl outfit, like shorts, dumb shirt, black shoes.”