Mexican Daniel Suarez wins first NASCAR title for Latin America

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- El campeon!

Daniel Suarez won the Xfinity Series season finale and title at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Saturday, becoming the first foreign champion in a NASCAR national series.

The 24-year-old Mexican bested fellow championship contenders Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier and Erik Jones on a botched restart with three laps to go.

"It's very hard to put into words," Suarez said. "I'm speechless right now. I'm just very proud of everyone and thankful to have the family that I have, my mom, my dad. They gave me all the tools to be here right now. They put me in a car even when we didn't have the support or the racing background. They supported me, and right now we are just living a dream."

Suarez thanked fans and his native country in Spanish in victory lane. His win was the first of the weekend for Joe Gibbs Racing, which has two drivers -- Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards -- vying for the Sprint Cup championship Sunday.

"For us, after two years, to be where we are tonight is amazing," car owner Joe Gibbs said. "This is going to be a big deal for our sport. It's huge."

It was just Suarez's third career victory, but the most important for obvious reasons.

Claiming the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway made the accomplishment all the more memorable for Suarez.

"To win here in Homestead and to have a lot of fans and people from Latin America, Mexicans, [people from] all over Latin America, it's something great for me, Suarez said. "And on the side of that, I have my mom, my dad, my family from Houston, my friends from Mexico [and] my friend Coco over there that I used to race cars with him when I was 13 years old. A lot of friends were here.

"More than 30 people were here just to have fun with me, to enjoy this weekend, and what a better way to finish [than] this way. I'm just very proud of my team, very proud of everyone that has been helping me to be in this position, and it's still hard to believe this. It's still hard to believe this. But we worked hard, and this team really deserves these results."

Sadler, who gambled by taking two tires on the final pit stop, finished third in the race and second in the standings. The former Cup driver and sentimental favorite remained without a championship at any national level in a career spanning more than two decades.

"This is by far the hardest because I feel like this is the best team I've probably ever worked with," said Sadler, who drove with an interim crew chief because his usual one was suspended. "We felt like we could come in here and compete, and we made a great pit call there at the end to get some clean air."

Sadler asked Cole Whitt to give him the top lane on the restart, butWhittdeclined.

Allgaier finished sixth and Jones ninth. Both got stuck behind Whitt, the leader,on the final restart, and when Whitt spun his worn-out tires, Allgaier and Jones fell way behind Suarez.

"It's really frustrating," Jones said. "I don't mean to bag on the guy so much, but it's like, 'Hey, we're up here racing for the championship.' And maybe we don't even win it if he pits and lets us move up, but at least we would have had a fair shot at it. I feel like we kind of got robbed of at least our chance to race for it. Yeah, it's just unfortunate. It just wasn't a great situation altogether."

The chaos definitely benefited Suarez, who passed Sadler low and pulled away from the field. Suarez led 133 of the 200 laps in the race.

Suarez was last year's top rookie in the second-tier series. He began racing karts in Mexico and moved to North Carolina as a teenager to pursue a career at NASCAR's national level. He had to teach himself English by watching cartoons on American television, and Suarez moved through NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program to land a job with JGR.

Suarez is the first D4D driver to win a championship.

Suarez has soared in his second season with Gibbs. As Jones struggled down the stretch, Suarez upped his performance. He won at Dover to move through the Round of 12 and was runner-up at Kentucky and third at Charlotte. Then, Suarez registered finishes of third (Kansas), fifth (Texas) and fifth (Phoenix) to set up his championship-clinching victory at Homestead while working with crew chief Scott Graves.

"I feel like Scott and I, we have come a long ways," Suarez said. "In the first half of the year, we were good, and in the second half of the year, we were great. That's something really good.

"I'm really looking forward for our future, but for now, I think I'm just very proud of the performance that Scott and the guys and Joe Gibbs Racing, they brought to this race. They brought my favorite car, and that's the car that I won Michigan with. That's just my baby, and we've got it here, and we won a championship."

The championship surely make him an even bigger star back home. On a return trip to Mexico with NASCAR officials last month, Suarez was celebrated as if he was Dale Earnhardt Jr.

After Suarez won in Homestead, Earnhardt Jr. congratulated the new champion via Twitter.

For Gibbs, it is his second driver championship in the Xfinity Series but first since Busch won in 2009.

The Gibbs organization also celebrated its fifth owner's championship in the Xfinity Series.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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