Can you keep a secret?

Daniel Suárez can. The Mexican-born NASCAR driver was celebrating the end of his wildly successful 2016 season as Xfinity Series champion, feasting privately with a small circle of family and friends at a high-dollar restaurant in his homeland, when his cell phone rang.

It was Joe Gibbs, owner of Joe Gibbs Racing.

“I knew something was up because he was, like, on a conference call with three other people and I said, ‘Man, something beautiful is about to happen here,’ ” Suárez said, recalling the late December conversation during a phone interview on Wednesday with azcentral sports.

Indeed, Gibbs was calling to formally offer Suárez a full-time ride in the Monster Energy Cup Series this season. But it came with a hitch. Suárez would be replacing veteran driver Carl Edwards, who had yet to formally announce his retirement, and Suárez was instructed by Gibbs not to say a word about anything to anybody.

“He told me it was top secret,” Suárez said, laughing. “When he called me and asked where I was, I told him and he said to me, ‘Get up from the table and excuse yourself.’ So I told everyone I would be right back, and it turns out I was gone for like 45 minutes.

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“I came back to the table and everyone is looking at me like something happened. They were just waiting for me to say something, and I just sat there and didn’t say anything. My girlfriend said, ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘I can’t tell you.’ I just told her I had a call with these people and someday next year, I’d tell her what it’s about.”

The cat has been out of the bag for a while now, but it should come as no surprise that Gibbs picked Suárez to join his four-driver team alongside Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth. After all, in just his second year in the Xfinity Series, Suárez became the first foreign-born driver to win a NASCAR championship when he captured the second-tier series title at age 24. He finished fifth in the Xfinity Series the year before as a rookie.

“Once we learned that Carl would not return, Daniel was really the obvious choice to take the wheel of this newly designed 2018 Camry,” Gibbs said in announcing the agreement. “He is a great fit for our team and our partners. He’s worked extremely hard and proven to be a quick learner, and he will have great teammates to lean on. This might be a bit earlier than we anticipated, but he has earned this opportunity, and we are excited for his future.”

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Given that NASCAR has a new title sponsor for its Cup series, not to mention a brand new points system and playoff format, it only figures that the sport is primed for a new rising young star as well.

How about Suárez?

He’s already so popular, especially here in Arizona, that Phoenix International Raceway is celebrating Suárez and his No. 19 ARRIS Toyota Camry by offering $19 ticket packages for Sunday’s Camping World 500.

The deal comes with a Suárez autographed trading card (limited to the first 250 fans) and a chance to win a meet and greet with the driver before the big race. For details, visit Suárez has, and he loves the promotion.

“I’ve seen it, and I think it’s so cool,” he said. “Phoenix is an amazing pace me for me because – and a lot of people don’t know this – but it’s the only race track in the United States where I’ll have raced in every single series there is in NASCAR.”

Suárez became an instant fan favorite in the Valley in 2014 when he won the Mexico Series Toyota 120. On an evening when most of the field was torn into ribbons of shredded sheet metal, he dominated the race from start to finish.

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“Luckily, my car wasn’t so torn up, and I won the race,” he said. “I’ll always love Phoenix. Overall, it’s just been an amazing journey. I feel very blessed to be in this position and have so many good people on my side working very hard for myself. I’m in one of those years that you’re only lucky enough to have once in your life.”

Thus far, Suárez hasn’t finished any higher than 20th during the first three races at Daytona, Atlanta and Las Vegas. But he knows it’s a process and that the wins will start coming for both him and his JGR teammates.

He can even see a Monster Energy Cup Series championship in his future.

“I know strongly that it’s going to hopefully happen one day,” Suárez said. “And man, that would mean the world to me. I know it’s going to take a lot of work, a lot of dedication, but I think that’s me. I’m a hard-working person, a very dedicated person and I’m really looking forward to that.”

Whether that happens or not, Suárez knows he wouldn’t even be this close to realizing his dream if it wasn’t for his father, Alejandro, the owner of a small auto-restoration shop in Monterrey, Mexico.

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“My dad, he’s an amazing father and a very good friend, obviously,” Suárez said. “He just helped me so much throughout my racing career. He didn’t have a lot of possibilities economically when I was younger, but every single year he found a way to keep me racing. He’s been the most important part of my career and pushed me in the right spot when I needed it most. When nobody believed in me, he did.”

When then President-elect Donald Trump began campaigning about building a wall to prevent Mexican immigrants from coming to the United States, Alejandro was quick to hold up his son as a Mexican of whom all Americans could be proud.

“I’m sure Trump is proud of this Mexican,” the elder Suárez told the Charlotte Observer. “Why? Because he has done things the right way. This Mexican has a work visa. This Mexican pays taxes to the U.S.”

Daniel Suárez doesn’t like to discuss politics and only wishes there were more diversity in the world, including NASCAR. But ask him if he’s hoping Trump invites him to the White House should he win the Cup championship anytime soon, and Suárez will be as blunt as he is fast on a race track.

“I hope not,” he said. “At least not now.”

Reach McManaman at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac and listen to him live every Wednesday night between 7-9 on Fox Sports 910-AM on The Freaks with Kenny and Crash.


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