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Daniel Suarez to be first full-time Mexican-born driver in NASCAR's top series

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. -- When Daniel Suarez visited his native Mexico as the grand marshal for an exhibition NASCAR-sanctioned stock-car race in December, he needed to visit the infield medical center to get some intravenous fluids.

He was battling a cold, and for about five hours, he was the center of attention, having just won a title in the NASCAR Xfinity Series -- the top developmental series in the United States -- a couple of weeks earlier.

"I felt like I was ... a rock star," Suarez said about the experience. "Everyone was asking for pictures. Some big names in racing, they were asking me for pictures, where normally, three years ago, I was asking them for pictures."

That experience taught him just how big he is in Mexico. He became an even bigger name Wednesday when he was selected to replace Carl Edwards in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 NASCAR Cup Series car.

"This is amazing," Suarez said. "I wasn't expecting to be in this position right now. ... I know that it won't be easy. It will be a lot of work. I have a lot to learn. But I'm sure I couldn't have a better situation."

Edwards decided in the last month that he would step away from racing, and JGR, along with sponsor Arris, didn't hesitate to name Suarez as his replacement. Suarez is the first full-time Mexican-born driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

"It is huge for me," Suarez said about the historic nature of the announcement Wednesday, which followed the Edwards retirement news conference at the JGR shop. "I have a lot of support from everywhere in Latin America, but Mexico a lot.

"It is something that is hard to explain. A lot of people there saw me grow slowly and move to the U.S., and we were having a hard time speaking English and having a hard time finding sponsors to race."

The first foreign-born driver to win a NASCAR national stock-car series championship, Suarez won three races and earned 19 top-five and 27 top-10 finishes in two Xfinity seasons.

The 25-year-old Suarez moved to the United States in 2011, and one of his biggest challenges initially was learning English. While he had some modest success as part of the NASCAR diversity program for drivers, he didn't do anything that would indicate he would be on the fast track to a Cup ride.

But the progression of his career the last two years has been nothing short of phenomenal. He went from eight top-5 finishes in 2015 to 19 in 33 races in 2016.

Suarez does not have any experience in a Cup car. He will test Jan. 31-Feb. 1 at Phoenix International Raceway as part of a NASCAR test that allows one car per race organization.

The driver shook his head, saying he was not nervous about the move. His first Cup race will be the 2017 Daytona 500.

"I'm ready to go," Suarez said. "We all were expecting to run one more year with Xfinity. But with this going on, I felt it was a perfect opportunity to move up right now.

"I feel like I learned a lot in two years in the Xfinity Series."

Suarez will have to lean on his teammates -- veterans Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth -- who have a combined 105 Cup wins. Dave Rogers, who nearly led Edwards to the Cup title last season, will be Suarez's crew chief. Suarez also will run 10 or more Xfinity races on select weekends to earn additional track time.

"He's obviously done an unbelievable job for us," Gibbs said. "We really appreciate that. Winning the [Xfinity] championship was a huge deal for us."