Driver Daniel Suarez is helping NASCAR grow in Mexico

NASCAR Dover Auto Racing
Daniel Suarez competing during the NASCAR Cup Series race May 6 at Dover International Speedway.

It’s not the fault of Daniel Suarez that the 2018 World Cup in Russia comes during a prime spot in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Suarez is the first driver from Mexico with a full-time ride on the tour, but for the next month and a half, his soccer-crazed nation is going to be engulfed with charting what the national team does before, during, and immediately after the World Cup.

On Saturday, Mexico will play Scotland in a friendly. On Sunday, Suarez will drive the No. 19 car for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Pocono 400.

Guess which is getting more attention?

Camera icon Chuck Burton / AP
Daniel Suarez looking down pit road last week before qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“El Tri” is given only 50-1 odds of winning the World Cup, but that won’t stop Mexico from dreaming big.

That’s what Suarez, a 26-year-old from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, did back in 2013, when he reluctantly left Mexico to move to North Carolina and chase a career om professional stock car racing.

“When I was in the [NASCAR Peak Mexico Series], I was happy. I mean, I was doing well. I was winning a lot of races,” he recently said in a video for The Players’ Tribune. “I was just 19 years old. I was starting, and maybe if it was up to me, I was going to stay over there.

“But a difference to that, my dad told me, ‘Hey, you have the talent and you have everything to try something else. I mean if it doesn’t work you can always come back, so you’ll go try and work hard for it.’ ”

After splitting time between NASCAR Mexico and the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East in 2011 and 2012, Suarez committed to the regional series for aspiring racers full time in 2013. During that season, Suarez got a place in the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program, and then things happened fast.

In 2014, he was given a ride by Joe Gibbs in the Xfinity Series ToyotaCare 250 in Richmond. In 2015, Gibbs Racing announced Suarez would have a full-time ride in the Xfinity Series. He also drove part time for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. In 2016, Suarez became the first Mexican-born driver to win a NASCAR series race when he passed Busch on the final lap at the Xfinity Menards 250 at Michigan Speedway.

That win qualified Suarez for the 2016 Xfinity playoffs. He advanced to the championship race and won to become the first foreign-born driver to win any NASCAR Series title.

Last year, Suarez replace the retired Carl Edwards for Gibbs Racing in the Monster Energy Cup Series. He finished 20th in the standings.

This season, Suarez finished third in the AAA 400 Drive for Autism at Dover International Speedway — his best Monster Energy series finish. Saturday, he was second to Kevin Harvick in the All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Suarez will never knock soccer off the front pages, but his achievement in NASCAR is expanding the popularity of stock car racing in his home country.

“It’s a lot of fun for me to see how many race-car fans have become NASCAR fans,” he said. “Racing in Mexico for a long time was open-wheel.  NASCAR is getting bigger and bigger. Not just people watching. There are a lot of young drivers who are now giving [stock cars] a try. Now, there is an opportunity to follow.”