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WALL? WHAT WALL?

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At 19, DANNY SUÁREZ left his native Mexico to chase the American racing dream. Now 25 and the reigning Xfinity champ, he's stepping up to the Cup level

ONE MONTH before the Daytona 500, more than 100 drivers from NASCAR's top series converge on Charlotte's downtown convention center for a two-day media event. Decked out in their fire suits, they speed-walk from meeting room to meeting room for interviews, photo shoots and promotional video tapings. For all but one of them, the day's agenda is a breeze. Cup rookie Daniel Suárez, however, battles a few headwinds.

For starters, English is Suárez's second language. When he first turned up in this town six years ago—after a 1,500-mile road trip from his native Monterrey, Mexico, in a beat-up VW Beetle—he didn't speak a lick of it. And while a steady diet of movies and cartoons has equipped him with a practical (if still heavily accented) fluency, there's still so much that's Greek to him.

Like the word reliable—which Suárez keeps pronouncing as re-AL-ible while reading ad copy off a teleprompter. "I just can't say that word," he tells the production crew with a sheepish grin. "It's been ... for years...."

Or, like the words to "Deep in the Heart of Texas," the request of another crew taping promos for Texas Motor Speedway. When Suárez tries to oblige, with a producer feeding him the lines a few words at a time, his efforts prompt another driver to interrupt a photo shoot in a neighboring stall. "I gotta hear this!" Austin Dillon howls.

Every Suárez shoot, it seems, elicits the same note ultimately: That was great, but would you mind doing one more en Español? "I have to translate pretty much everything on the fly," he explains later, noting how rare it is to see another Spanish speaker or a script on these pop-up sets. "I try to figure it out, put the best words together."

That a NASCAR driver can shift gears like this says plenty.

NASCAR IS, of course, a distinctly American show, one in which the good ol' boys have always taken center stage. Now here comes the 25-year-old Suárez, striding into the spotlight—not from the Deep South but from South of the Border. This season, while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, the most dominating franchise on the grid these days, he'll make history as the first Mexican driver to race in the Cup series full-time, behind the wheel of the number 19 Toyota.

Suárez made a persuasive case for the job last year while racing in the Xfinity Series, where he won three races on the way to becoming the first Latin American to claim a NASCAR championship. It was a stunning breakthrough, not least because his Gibbs teammate Erik Jones, just 20, had seemed to be the more likely breakout driver. Twenty races into the 2016 Xfinity Series, Jones was tapped to drive for Furniture Row Racing, a JGR affiliate competing on the Cup level, in '17.

Suárez, meanwhile, appeared to be in for more seasoning. "I'll never forget standing with Coach [aka JGR team owner and Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs] in Victory Lane after Daniel won," says David Wilson, the general manager of Toyota's racing program. "We were looking at each other like, Now what? How are we gonna convince him to run Xfinity one more year? We just didn't have a place for him at the Cup level at that time."

But then, just before Christmas, a spot opened up. Carl Edwards—the backflipping, muscle-rippling Missourian who came a restart away from taking the 2016 Cup crown—told JGR brass that his heart wasn't in racing anymore and called it a career after a 13-year run on the Cup circuit. His abrupt departure follows the recent retirements of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, two of the sport's major stars. Even more disconcerting: Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has been voted NASCAR's most popular driver for the past 14 years straight, turned 42 last October and is coming off a concussion-related health issue that kept him off the track for half of last season. All the while, attendance figures and television ratings have trended downward.

So it's no wonder that NASCAR moved to shake things up for the new year. In December a new partnership was announced, replacing Sprint as the primary sponsor of the Cup series with noted youth brand Monster Energy. Then, in late January, the sanctioning body rolled out a slew of new competition regulations in a bid to appeal to younger fans. Among the changes, races will be divided into three heats, with points awarded for each segment, in an effort to increase on-track action (sidebar, opposite).

NASCAR is also counting on a new generation of fresh-faced racers like Suárez to draw more millennials to the track. Never mind that the idea that fans would rally around a Mexican driver who—oh, by the way—drives a Japanese car seemed unthinkable once. But Suárez isn't your typical foreign driver. He's more familiar.

SUÁREZ DOESN'T really wear his heritage on his sleeve. A small Mexican-flag belt patch is the only hint of country you'll find on his livery. What's more, his trim build, ruddy cheeks and permanent five o'clock shadow conform to the young NASCAR driver stereotype. Really, unless he opened his mouth, you might reckon he was from North Carolina or Kentucky.

When Suárez does speak, it's with marked confidence. His capacity for schmoozing is quickly becoming legendary. "We have a lot of things where we have sponsors come in here and do different two- and three-day events," says Gibbs. "We'd be down at the bowling alley with a sponsor that had nothing to do with Daniel, and I'd turn around and there he is. He's bowling. Or he's driving go-karts. Stuff like that—he's all over it."

Suárez's sparkling affability makes it difficult to imagine a time when he was more of a wallflower. But Joey Logano was a witness, some six years ago. "First time he came over to my house, we're grilling burgers," the Team Penske standout recalls. "He pulls up in this old Beetle. Didn't know hardly any English. At the time, he was driving in the K&N series, and my roommate, Coleman Pressley, was his crew chief. I'm like, 'Coleman, how do you even understand anything he says? How do you fix the car?' And he's like, 'He has a translator, an actual person, to do that.' He's come a long, long ways."

Suárez chuckles at the memory now. "Maybe for him it was just another day," he says. "But for me it was a big deal to meet Joey Logano. And now that I'm going to be racing with these guys, it just feels very cool. It just feels like slowly I've been making my friends here in the United States [after] starting from the very bottom."

Another of Suárez's endearing qualities: He isn't some open-wheel expat attempting a career crossover. He was made in the USA. The bulk of his racing background is in stock cars. Apart from his 58 starts in NASCAR's Mexico series, Suárez climbed his way up as homegrown talents do, rising steadily from the ARCA level to K&N cars to the Truck series—where he made a different sort of impression. "I thought he was a weapon on the racetrack," Logano says, "the car you didn't want to get near, for sure. To go from someone that you were scared to get around to now winning races? In, like, two years? That's impressive."

It has been a growth spurt that augurs well for Suárez's most recent promotion. When he climbs into the number 19 for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 26, it will mark his first-ever point-scoring race in a Cup car. Beyond a test in Phoenix, a 75-lap all-star race, and the Can-Am Duel at Daytona (a 60-lap feature that sets the field for the 500), Suárez's opportunities to acclimate to the bigger, more powerful Cup car are scarce. In the meantime he crams by turning laps inside Toyota's dynamic simulator and studying video at home.

The pressure is enormous, but Logano can relate. Eight years ago he was an 18-year-old Gibbs rookie when he ran his first full-time schedule, starting at Daytona. "Daniel is far more prepared than I was," says Logano. "He's older, he's more mature, he's got a lot more experience. All I can say is just, Be patient. And I'm not saying for him to be patient. I'm telling everyone that's reading this article—be patient with him. Judging from his past, he struggles, but then he figures it out."

SINGLE-MINDEDNESS has been Suárez's constant seatmate from the moment he followed a friend into go-karting at age 12. "I don't really know where it came from," he says. "My dad, he has some of that. I'm just one of those persons who likes to get things done. And when I get something in my head, I'm just thinking about it until I get it done."

That laser focus is what would spur his dad, Alejandro, to liquidate their family's business—an auto-restoration shop—and invest the proceeds into his son's racing career. As the kid held his own among a cohort that included future Formula 1 stars Sergio Pérez and Esteban Gutiérrez, other businessmen began taking an interest. One was Carlos Slim Domit, son of Carlos Slim Helú—a man whom Forbes three times recognized as the world's wealthiest person. Another was Jose Sabates, brother of Felix Sabates—a minority partner in Chip Ganassi Racing. By age 17, Daniel was at a crossroads: He could either follow Gutiérrez's lead, to England, and try making it there as an open-wheel racer. Or he could go north.

His manager, a promoter named Jimmy Morales, saw a clear choice. "Right now," he told Suárez, "the big thing is NASCAR. We want a Mexican driver in the United States. You can be that guy." Two years later he packed up his Beetle and set off with Alejandro. "It was maybe the longest trip I've ever done," he says. "You learn a lot of things about the United States on that trip."

He couch-surfed for a couple of months until he could afford his own apartment. There wasn't much money left over for English lessons, so he picked up what he could from the guys at the race shop, Rosetta Stone and binge-watching TV. "One of my goals was to watch two movies per day," he says. "You can imagine how many movies I watched in a year."

"He was just working his guts out to try and learn English as quick as he could," says Chris Osborne, the veteran JGR spotter who watched over Suárez during his years in the Truck and Xfinity Series and will remain with him in Cup. To ramp up his driver's learning curve, Osborne spent a lot of time talking to Suárez over the phone and face-to-face. In those conversations the driver learned what kind of feedback his crew chief and engineers needed, while the spotter gained a better sense of his driver's tics. Those intense months of rapport building provided a far more immersive language experience than those few semesters of Spanish that the 51-year-old Osborne took in high school back in High Point, N.C. "We figured out how to piece things together," he says.

So deep is their understanding now that Suárez trusts Osborne to overrule him in the heat of competition. A 2016 Xfinity race at Darlington, which saw Suárez finish third behind veteran Cup drivers Elliott Sadler and Denny Hamlin (a JGR teammate and last year's Daytona 500 winner), typified their student-teacher relationship. After a solid opening run Suárez started feeling wobbly through the track's 25-degree-banked second turn. "He was saying that the car was too free [meaning the back end was sliding out]," Osborne says. "But from what I was seeing, he was tight until he got to the late exit of the corner—and then it was just snapping loose."

On the next pit stop Suárez asked crew chief Scott Graves to be "tightened up" for the bend. But Osborne suggested otherwise. "I told [Graves] that my personal opinion was that he needed to be freed up in that area," Osborne continues. "So they went off what I said, and we picked up a 10th [of a second], a 10th and a half a lap. Daniel said that the car was a whole lot better. He didn't ask what changes were made."

It wasn't until two days later at their team debrief, that, says Osborne, "I told Daniel of the information that I had fed Scott versus what he was feeding me. Since then he has gotten so much better about the feedback. He's so much more descriptive on exactly what he feels and at every point of the racetrack. He almost seems like a 10-year veteran with the information that he gives now."

By the time the Xfinity Chase rolled around, it was clear Suárez had learned his lesson. In the seven-race playoff, Suárez drove with patience and poise all the way through to the last race at Homestead, where he started on the pole and led 133 of 200 laps; after a restart with three to go, he outran Sadler and Jones en route to the checkers.

Afterward, Suárez was at a loss for words—but not because of any language barrier. "It's a dream," he said, exulting in Victory Lane. "It's a dream, and tomorrow I will tell you [what it feels like]."

IN MEXICO the enormity of Suárez's achievement was not lost in translation. Moments after crossing the finish line at Homestead, Suárez received a congratulatory text from Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto. A month later, while serving as the grand marshal for a NASCAR exhibition in Mexico City, he was mobbed at every turn for pictures and autographs.

Here in the U.S., Suárez resonates too. In October, as the Chase was still raging, he traveled to the White House for a panel discussion about opportunities in the Latinx community through sports and through My Brother's Keeper—a signature Obama Administration initiative designed to address opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color. Speaking to an audience of about 130 students, Suárez told the story of his father's sacrifice and their border-crossing road trip. He extolled the virtues of Drive for Diversity, the 13-year-old NASCAR program that has boosted him along the way. He seemed less like a jock than a statesman. But he's hesitant to wander too far down that road. The rise of Donald Trump presents too many minefields.

The new President kicked off his election campaign by vilifying Mexican immigrants as "drug dealers" and "rapists," and since taking office has declared his intent to move forward with plans to erect a wall on the Southern border—a project financed in part by tariffs on Mexican imports. Not only could the potential impact of these machinations be as crippling for Suárez as it has been for many other foreign-born athletes who compete in and, in some cases, for the United States, but the tariff proposal in particular could slow the automotive industry to a pace unseen since the 2008 global economic crisis—from which NASCAR, in many ways, is still recovering.

But what can Suárez do? Of the few celebrities who campaigned for Trump, a number came from NASCAR; chief among them was Brian France, the sport's chairman and CEO. (Though Earnhardt, for one, has come out against the ban, tweeting that his family immigrated from Germany.) So Suárez does what he's been doing from the moment he set foot in this country. He chooses his words carefully, mindful of how many more people will be watching him now on TV and at the track. "Honestly, most of the time, I try to avoid talking about subjects I'm not really good at, and politics is a big one," he says. "I don't like politics, and I don't really care about politics. That's exactly what I think about that."

So Suárez will let his driving do the talking, safe in the knowledge that he has time to recover should he stumble along the way. "We're very circumspect," says Toyota's Wilson. "This is a long-term investment in Daniel. Ultimately, what's most important is that he has a solid footing underneath him, that he's surrounded by good people and good coaching."

It's only a matter of time before Suárez figures out the rest. In the meantime, he'll keep living the dream. The American Dream.

Suárez doesn't wear his heritage on his sleeve. Unless he opened his mouth, you might reckon he was from KENTUCKY OR NORTH CAROLINA.

"I like that no one driver, or team, has a stranglehold on the competition. In fact, I think we could see TWO NEWCOMERS TO VICTORY LANE.

"I try to avoid talking about subjects I'm not really good at," says Suárez. "AND POLITICS IS A BIG ONE. I don't like politics."

A LOOK AHEAD

MAKING CHANGE

The 2017 Monster Energy Cup series is already revving up some juicy story lines. Here are five to track.

THREE-POINT TURNS

Races now unfold in three parts. The leader at the end of each of the first two segments earns 10 points, the race winner gets 40, and the drivers carry their totals through the playoffs—which will no longer be called "the Chase."

LOSE THE FORCE

A number of tweaks to bodywork regulations (which kick in at the March 5 race in Atlanta) will lighten the aerodynamic downforce load on Cup cars. Throughout the paddock, drivers are rejoicing because the change gives them more control over their machines.

NO MORE ROOKIE HAZING

Cup drivers with more than five years' full-time experience are now limited to a maximum of 10 races in the Xfinity Series and seven Truck races. Which means that veterans such as Kyle Busch won't be as free to drop down into the "minors" and dominate. But upstarts like third-year Cup driver Chase Elliott? They can still get their licks in.

CLEAN SLATE

Texas Motor Speedway is repaving its 1.5-mile surface for 2017. Look for the field to be thrown for a loop—in April's race and again in November's, when a hard stumble could carry playoff implications.

JUNIOR'S MINT?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (below) is back in the saddle after missing half the 2016 season with concussion-related symptoms. Every collision will bring a new reason for NASCAR's fans and stakeholders to hold their collective breath.

TALKING POINTS

FROM THE BOOTH

With FOX Sports (and FS1) set to televise the first 21 events of the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup season, SI sat down with the network's commentators, Larry McReynolds and Darrell Waltrip, as the two swapped paint on what to expect in 2017.

DARRELL WALTRIP

One of the debates in the off-season was about parity. I'm not a fan of parity in NASCAR—stifles creativity. It's more for the officials than it is for the teams.

LARRY MCREYNOLDS

I probably changed my mind a bit over the last few years. But ultimately I like that no one driver, or team, has a stranglehold on the competition. In fact, I think we could see two newcomers to Victory Lane: Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon.

DW

I expect Stewart-Haas [which this season will be running Fords rather than Chevys for the first time in the team's history] will be doing their usual celebrating there too. In days gone by a manufacturer change would've been huge.

LM

You took the words right out of my mouth. Most of my years as a crew chief, to change manufacturers would almost be like starting a new race team. But if I was a betting man, I'd be willing to wager we're not even gonna really realize the difference. Kurt Busch's still gonna be in the playoff hunt. Kevin Harvick's gonna still be a championship contender.

DW

The driver on that team under the most pressure, in my mind, is Clint Bowyer. He's coming off a couple of bad years.

LM

Three dismal years. He has not won since the end of 2012. And, honestly, other than winning Sonoma and a couple other decent runs, the number 14 team didn't bear a whole lot of fruit last year. We know they went through a lot with Tony [Stewart] not returning until about a third of the way through the season.

DW

And then Dale [Earnhardt Jr.] was gone half the year. Be good to have him back. No athlete likes to be told, You're done. But starting back up at Daytona? Man, that's tough.

LM

He did an extensive Darlington test back in early December. Now, I realize a test is not a race and Darlington isn't Daytona. But I'm talking to his crew chief, Greg Ives, and he said, 'It's like he hasn't even missed a beat.' I'm glad he's coming back. He's great for our sport, like our Tiger—he moves the needle.

DW

So did Carl Edwards. Losing him ... that's one of your key guys when it comes to Gibbs. The way the format works, I can't pick a [champion]. Still, I say they're the team to beat.

LM

I'm actually gonna go with Joey Logano at Penske. He's been a part of the Championship Four now for two of the three years. There's nowhere you go with him that he's not a contender: short track, road course, speedway. He's the guy to beat.