Daniel Suarez soaking up more of the spotlight in second Cup season

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Daniel Suarez moved with ease among the patients, families and doctors during a hospital visit Thursday.

Some didn't know who he was, but others knew exactly that Suarez would be racing nearby Sunday in the NASCAR Cup Series event (2 p.m. ET, FS1) at Texas Motor Speedway.

But maybe, more importantly, Suarez knew who he was.

Suarez is used to being in high demand in markets that have big Hispanic communities. The track located outside of Phoenix will use Suarez whenever it can. Texas also is a popular spot -- it's the closest track to Suarez's hometown of Monterrey, Mexico, albeit a nine-hour drive.

In his fourth year of NASCAR national series racing, Suarez finally appears comfortable at events such as the one Thursday, where sponsor Stanley had patients of Cook Children's Hospital design the paint scheme for its annual children's hospital promotion in which Stanley donates $100,000 -- but that could turn into $1 million if Suarez wins Sunday's race.

Few would expect Suarez to win, but now in his second year of Cup racing, he feels he has in some ways earned the right to be the focus of such a promotion -- to be on stage as the star of the show.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver didn't just win the 2016 Xfinity Series championship -- he had a solid 2017 season as a Cup rookie, finishing 20th in the standings. Holding his own in NASCAR's top division, Suarez has earned the right to play air hockey with hospital patient Lucas Norris, 10, thanks to his on-track performance and not just because of his Mexican heritage.

"A lot of times in my career, I was questioning myself -- sometimes I'm getting opportunities because I am different," Suarez said. "I don't take that for granted.

"I feel like that's a huge responsibility and something I love. It's something I wouldn't change for anything. But I wanted to be up there [onstage] just because I can drive. Being a Mexican driver helps a lot, but you have to be able to run in the front. I feel like we're making a good combination [of those things], and with that, we can bring more people to the racetrack."

Suarez, the first full-time Mexican driver in the Cup series, spent a day a couple of weeks ago at the Mexican consulate in Dallas. The hospital he visited Thursday has a significant number of Hispanic patients.

Now that he has spent several years in NASCAR, Suarez understands the role he can play in growing the sport.

"It's more responsibility," Suarez said. "The way that NASCAR and my team and everyone is doing, everything is just rolling [along]. I feel very, very proud to be a small part of it and to be able to let the Hispanic people know what we're doing.

"I invite them to the racetrack. It's very special. The West Coast is a lot of fun for me with a lot of fans. But here in Texas, it's just as good."

Suarez would like to give them something a little more to cheer about this year. He sits 22nd in the Cup standings six races into his sophomore season. He has never heard the term "sophomore slump," an American expression for an athlete who has a promising rookie season but for whatever reason doesn't build on it the second year.

"I'm not one of those guys that believes in those kind of rules, but I do believe we have to keep working," Suarez said. "Last year, we were rookies so a lot of people weren't expecting a lot of us.

"Now people are expecting way more from us and we are not delivering [yet this year], so we've got to work on that."

He has a best finish this season of eighth at Phoenix, but he also has finished outside the top 20 in three of the first six races. It hasn't always been Suarez's fault -- in one of the races, a simple air wrench malfunction ruined a promising day.

"We've been very inconsistent," Suarez said. "We can be very fast in happy hour [of final practice] and then we start a race and we lost it. We have the speed; we are sometimes having a hard time transferring the speed from qualifying to practice and practice to the race.

"That is where we're working hard. The speed is there. We just have to be consistent and smart to have the speed in the race."

At Texas, Suarez has had some good runs. There, he finished second twice in 2015 when racing in NASCAR's Truck series. He earned two top-10s in the Xfinity Series. Last year in Cup at Texas, he posted finishes of 19th and 14th.

He wants to do well Sunday, partly because this is one race he will have more friends in the crowd.

"I have a few friends and family coming this weekend," Suarez said. "It is the only race on the schedule I can have family coming to the racetrack. It's doable to drive. So they do it."

And he wants to do well because he will have some of the hospital patients coming to hang out with him and watch the race, too.

"It's an amazing opportunity for me to spend some good time with all these kids," Suarez said. "I have a feeling we're going to do very well in Texas. And I have a very good feeling we're going to have a lot of fun with these kids."