Wallace And NASCAR Set To Take ‘Huge Step’

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, June 6 2017

Darrell Wallace Jr. will get his shot at driving in the Big Show and with Richard Petty, no less. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Garry Eller)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. will make his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debut this weekend at Pocono Raceway, substituting for the recuperating Aric Almirola in the No. 43 Ford Fusion fielded by Richard Petty Motorsports.

A graduate of NASCAR’s Diversity Program, Wallace owns five NASCAR Camping World Truck Series wins and has made a seamless transition into the NASCAR Xfinity Series, qualifying for the inaugural Chase last year.  Bubba currently sits fourth in the point standings.

This is a huge step for NASCAR, the whole sport in general, for bringing diversity to its top-tier level of NASCAR,” said Wallace, a 23-year-old native of Mobile, Ala. “I’m glad to be leading the forefront of that right now.  It just shows that we’re trying to bring in a new demographic.  We’re trying to bring in a new face, get a younger generation, no matter what color, what age.  We’re trying to get everybody involved to bring NASCAR back.  It’s been a fun journey.  But we’ll see what happens after we get through Pocono.”

Wallace will become the first African-American to compete in NASCAR’s premier series since Bill Lester drove the No. 23 Waste Management Dodge Charger for Bill Davis Racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Michigan International Speedway in 2006. Lester became the first African-American to qualify for a Cup race since 1986 that season, and only the sixth in series history.

Almirola suffered a compression fracture to his T5 vertebra in a three-car wreck at Kansas Speedway during a Saturday night race on May 13. Almirola was airlifted to a hospital after the Lap 199 incident which saw something break in Joey Logano’s car, sending his No. 22 Ford hard into Danica Patrick’s No. 10 Fusion. Both cars smacked the outside wall; Almirola couldn’t slow and plowed into Logano’s car.

“We are excited for Bubba to get this opportunity to drive the iconic No. 43 Fusion for Richard Petty Motorsports,” Dave Pericak, global director, Ford Performance, said in a statement.  “We couldn’t be happier with the progress of Aric Almirola’s recovery and can’t wait to get him back.  In the meantime, this is a great opportunity for Bubba to show what he can do at the top level of the sport and we are committed to helping RPM win races.

“We are proud of the collaboration between RPM, Roush Fenway (Racing) and Ford to make this driver transition happen, and it’s a great example of the One Ford mentality we have in order to make the overall Ford NASCAR program better.”

Wallace participated in a NASCAR teleconference earlier Tuesday, during which he spoke about the opportunity and the role color still plays in big-time stock car racing. An edited version follows:

QUESTION: What are your thoughts going into this weekend for your first career Cup start?

DARRELL WALLACE:  “Yeah.  This has been a pretty big couple of days for me.  It’s an exciting opportunity not only for myself but my family, first of all, my fans, everybody that’s helped me get to this level ever since I started racing when I was 9-years-old and had dreams of running in a Cup race, making my name present in the sport.  So this is the perfect opportunity.  So I’m very thankful for that.  I guess we’ll just get this thing started.”

QUESTION: There have been several drivers that have not found the success in the Xfinity Series, later finding success in Cup, like Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart.  Do you think cars that have more horsepower will suit your driving style?

DARRELL WALLACE:  “Yeah, it’s interesting how that works out.  Every step of NASCAR gets more tough.  You got to be ready for what comes at you.  For some reason I’ve been beating myself up for the last two years now, trying to get our first win in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.  It’s not for the lack of effort.  Definitely given it my all, my team has given it their all to continue to be successful out on the racetrack.  Just some things, got to have, like I said in my tweet on Saturday or Sunday, whenever that was, all the stars have got to be lined up.  We had opportunities but just wasn’t able to capitalize on it.  Looking forward to my first Cup start, seeing how that goes.  We got to go out there and make the most of it.”

QUESTION: If you look back to 2010, getting your start with Rev Racing, does that seem like an eternity ago in some ways?  How influential were they in getting you this shot?  Would you have had that shot without them?

DARRELL WALLACE: “Yeah, looking back, that’s seven years ago.  I guess for me, it still doesn’t seem too far away.  If you start breaking it down year-by-year, race-by-race, that was a really long time ago. That was a great opportunity that presented itself when we signed on with Joe Gibbs Racing, joined on with Rev Racing at the same time to compete in the Diversity Program, K&N Pro Series East. With that success came my career where it is now.  So definitely without that on- and off-track success we had in those two years, I don’t know if I’d be here today.  A lot of that credit goes to those guys over there.”

QUESTION: Do you think your racing Cup can help NASCAR counter the perception, deserved or not, that it’s not always welcoming of all races and ethnicities?

DARRELL WALLACE: “Yeah, I think that’s been shut down a long time ago.  It’s just a matter of finding what racetrack is in your area, going out and purchasing a ticket, checking the weather, see if it’s not too hot, but just coming out and enjoying the sport. I think that’s moreso the fans, the attendees, that are making that call, of wanting to just come out and enjoy the sport, knowing they can get in, have a great time, cheer on their favorite driver.  And I could be their new favorite driver.”

QUESTION: Did you wonder where this ride was three weeks ago?  Do you get any sense that Ford or NASCAR may have played an influence in this decision?

DARRELL WALLACE: “You know, obviously the first thing that popped up was to make sure Aric was OK, because that was a very vicious crash.  To see the timeline, the recovery process, I hear it’s coming along great.  I was actually at the shop yesterday talking with the crew chief (Drew Blickensderfer).  He was giving me an update on Aric.  It’s good to hear he’s coming along just fine. Obviously when stuff like that happens, you’re seat- hunting at times, you try to make phone calls, try to do all the right things.  The opportunity will present itself when it’s the right time. Pocono is the right time.  I’ve always said that God has had my plans in His hands.  I guess a new door has opened for this weekend, and we’ll go out there and make the most of it.”

QUESTION: What about if Ford or NASCAR had any influence in the decision?

DARRELL WALLACE: “I mean, I think everybody wanted to see this opportunity happen.  NASCAR wanted to see it, I believe, for multiple reasons.  Then Ford has been a great supporter of mine for the last two years, going on three years now.  We’ve been able to make the most of it with those guys.  Really try to keep Ford running up-front, keep that brand strong, just keep going.  Definitely, I think it’s helped from all parties.”

QUESTION: How do you get acclimated with the team?  This came up quickly.  How will you get acclimated?  How quickly can you merge into that team?  What will you have to do?  Then talk about what you put in emotionally, everything you’ve done to try to get to this stage, because there’s been a lot.

DARRELL WALLACE: “Yeah, one thing that’s helped out is Drew, I talked about earlier, the crew chief for the No. 43 car.  He was actually doing some races last year at Roush on that third car we ran sometimes.  He kind of has somewhat of a feel for what I like, just looking at setup notes, listening to our driver feedback, our meetings.  So that kind of helps out for sure. Like I said, I was in the shop yesterday.  Sat in the seat, sat in the car, got comfortable, met some of the guys that I will be racing together with the next couple weeks.

“This is a fast-paced sport.  You got to get acclimated really quick, get used to everything.  I think the biggest thing is focusing in on Pocono, making sure we can get or I can get all that I can out of the car, making the most of the weekend.”

QUESTION: Talk about what you’ve been through trying to get to this stage, to where you’re at right now.

DARRELL WALLACE: “Yeah, I’ve been through, what’s this, 14, 15 years of racing.  A lot of ups-and-downs.  Always say there’s more downs than ups.  That’s what makes you stronger, keeps you hungry for coming back for more.  It’s been a lot of blood, sweat and tears from not only myself but everybody that’s helped me out along the way.  Definitely, a lot of family sacrifices to get me here. It’s been a fun journey.  Everybody has a different story of how they got to their ultimate level.  It’s always cool in a couple years to look back on it and see how far we’ve come.”

QUESTION: You noted Aric is coming along.  Once he gets back in the car, that leaves you out of a spot.  With Roush Fenway Racing announcing they’re suspending operations of the Xfinity team after this weekend, when you look further ahead, 10 weeks, what happens next to you after this opportunity finishes up?

DARRELL WALLACE: “Yeah, you know, honestly I can’t really touch on that because simple as that, I don’t know what’s going to happen.  One thing I can touch on is I know I’ll go out there and prove to everybody inside the racetrack, outside the racetrack, on the TV, that I belong in the Cup Series.  Do the best that I can.  Give an extra 200 percent each and every time I climb in the car for Ford, for Richard Petty, for everybody on the team, for Smithfield, to go out there and make the opportunity the greatest it has been.”

QUESTION: What do you need to do to go out there and prove it? People have seen what you’ve done in Xfinity and Truck.  What do you feel like you need to do within the next 10 weeks to prove you belong in a ride with somebody else down the road?

DARRELL WALLACE: “I think Jeff Burton touched on that (Monday).  There’s no need for me to go out there and try to set the world on fire, try to win races and put myself in a tough spot, not be able to capitalize on it.  If the opportunity presents itself, yeah, we’ll jump on it.  There’s no need for me to force a hole, end up tearing up a race car.  I’m getting this opportunity because people believe in me and seen my talents coming up.  I have to go out there, just back that up, show them I can manage and perform, and I belong in the series.”

QUESTION: You mentioned how long you’ve been interested in racing, wanted to be a race car driver.  What are your earliest memories of that?  You said you were around 9.  Has that always seemed possible?

DARRELL WALLACE: “I think when we first started back in 2002, 2003, when I was 9, whenever that was, I think the most fun we had was just running go-karts.  The next thing you know, the next year came around, we were moving up to Bandoleros, Legends, not knowing where the timeline would take us, when the timeline would stop or anything.  Now we’re fast-forwarding to 2017 and I get to say I’m making my first Monster Energy Cup start this weekend at Pocono.  That’s pretty special for me.  We’re going to go out there and just do what I can do, put everything that I’ve learned in these 15 years into this weekend, make everybody proud.”

QUESTION: Darrell, take me through the timeline of how this all came together.  Since Aric got hurt, was it a conversation you had with Richard Petty Motorsports where you knew this was going to happen, it was just a matter of when?  Why not a couple weeks ago and why at Pocono?

DARRELL WALLACE: “You know, like I said earlier, we were making phone calls once the opportunity opened up.  It’s not like I can go out there and say, ‘Let’s make it happen for Charlotte.’  It’s really up to the team, up to Ford, when we all come to an agreement. Their agreement happened to happen here at Pocono.  Nothing to hang our heads about it not being at Charlotte.  The time is now.  It’s greater than it ever has been to make my first start.”

QUESTION: You couldn’t possibly be making your start in a more iconic car.  How cool does that feel, the No. 43, racing that car in the Cup Series?

DARRELL WALLACE: “Yeah, that’s huge.  It’s funny, (Ryan) Blaney texted me this morning, actually woke me up this morning, he wants a picture this weekend.  I was like Ok.  He was like, ‘We’re driving the two most iconic cars in the sport this weekend.’  We definitely have to capitalize on that.  That’s huge.  That’s awesome for me to get my first start driving the No. 43 for Richard Petty and everybody at RPM.  Then the other side of it is the first African-American since 2006.  That’s a lot of history behind it. I’ve always said dealing with that, I like to let the results speak for itself, let the results come in, let the history fall in behind that, not focus on the big spotlight, the African-American side, the iconic number.  Let all that funnel in after we have our good runs, get out there on the racetrack and show everybody we can do it.”

QUESTION: I’m sure there are going to be a lot of kids out there, probably African-American kids, saying, ‘I can do that,’ because you’re doing this.  Were there minority drivers when you were growing up who you said that you can do it because they’re doing it?

DARRELL WALLACE: “Yeah, I mean, I started out in the sport because it was just something fun and new for me.  Never really even paid attention to see if there was anybody that looked like me growing up in the sport.  Then as we started getting involved, getting into the Late Models, K&N Series.  Started here with Bill Lester, Marc Davis, obviously the path that was started with Wendell Scott, letting all that, like I said a second ago, letting that all kind of funnel in behind it and continue to carry on the torch that Wendell Scott laid out for all of us.

“For me, I just want to be a role model, put a positive impact on the kids that are watching the sport, that want to be a part of the sport, and leave a good everlasting impact on the sport, continue my legacy down the road.”

QUESTION: I know fans have come a long way.  As an African-American male, when you see the Confederate flag, do you put that in the back of your mind and say, ‘That has nothing to do with what I do?’

DARRELL WALLACE: “Yeah, that’s exactly what I do.  The only flags that I see is green, white, the checkered, sometimes the black flag, which is never good, and sometimes the yellow flag.”

QUESTION: What is it like to work for King Richard?

DARRELL WALLACE: “It’s been great so far.  It’s been two days on the job.  Just getting to the meaty side of it.  About to go to the racetrack and really find out.”

QUESTION: I was on the phone this morning with Frankie Scott, Wendell Scott Sr.’s son.  Have you had an opportunity to talk with anyone with the Scott family since this was announced?

DARRELL WALLACE: “Actually, Junior called me last night, Wendell Scott Jr. called me last night.  He was so pumped up.  He said he was helping me drive the car this past weekend at Dover.  He said that was our race, for sure.  He was pumped up about this past weekend, obviously this opportunity.  He kept it short and sweet. So that’s huge when you still have that connection with the family, continue to carry on a legacy that their father laid.”

QUESTION: How does the first win in the Camping World Truck Series help with the goal to make it to the Cup Series?

DARRELL WALLACE: “This is definitely one of the goals.  The ending goal was definitely to be in the Hall of Fame.  This is a huge step to that next level.  That first win, I just got done winding up my clock last week.  I needed to do that.  It’s been a little bit.  Every time I do that, it reminds me of what a great day that was back in 2013.  Everybody at KCM giving me that opportunity, solidifying my name in the sport, showing that I can win in the Truck Series, eventually carry on my career to where I am now.  That’s definitely helped that along the way. I think this kind of trumps that, for sure.  This is a huge step.  There’s no more climbing really.  Now we’re at the pinnacle level of the sport.  We have to go make the most of it.”

QUESTION: Can you talk a little bit about the significance of making the first start at Pocono, maybe what you like, don’t like about that track, some of the keys to what you’re looking for this weekend at Pocono.

DARRELL WALLACE: “Yeah, Pocono is a challenge, for sure, for me.  It’s called ‘The Tricky Triangle’ for a reason.  We’ve had some decent runs there.  I think that’s about as much as I can say on that. It’s one of those places where it always needs a little bit more work on my end to come back and be better each year.  I’ve been leaning on some guys for this Cup start coming up, to make sure I can get all I can out of the car, figure out what we need to do. I’ve been on the simulator at Ford to log laps, get comfortable with shifting, get a rhythm down.  It’s all about timing there, making the most of that, trying to figure out where you can capitalize on some guys where they’re slacking.”

QUESTION: How much pressure do you feel there is to perform right away?  Are you just going in there knowing what you’re capable of doing and just do your job?

DARRELL WALLACE: “I think in years past, yeah, I would definitely throw a lot of pressure on myself, seeing comments like Jeff Burton said.  Before I would try to go out there and try to set the world on fire, and we would not get the result we needed. Getting to talk to the Cup veterans, Jimmie Johnson, get to talk with (Kevin) Harvick tonight, Jeff Gordon texted me, getting to lean on those guys a little bit, knowing that the opportunity is here.  Just go out there, do the best that I can, make sure we get the best finish.

 “If we show up and we’re a 15th-place car, make sure we run 15th all day, hopefully capitalize on 13th and 14th in the closing laps.  If we’re a 25th-place car, make sure I do everything I can to capitalize on 25th.  It is all about how the weekend sets itself up.  Stay on that path, no need to venture out, put ourselves in a bad spot.”

QUESTION:  This weekend is full of emotions with the Cup debut, a closing of the car with the Xfinity program at Roush Fenway.  Talk about the No. 6 team, a strong knit family with Xfinity, how much you’ll miss that.

DARRELL WALLACE: “First off, thank you to everybody at Roush Fenway for the opportunity.  Jack has been heavily involved in this program, both Cup and Xfinity, trying to turn that program, turn the team around really to get it back on its feet, get it back to where it was. It’s been a tough battle.  But we can say this year we’ve made a lot of gains.  A lot of sleepless nights have gone into it to make these cars faster, to get our Ford Mustangs and Fusions back on-track, lead laps, win stages, win races.

“We got two wins, one from each side, for Cup and Xfinity this year.  That’s pretty special.  We’re up there leading laps, just trying to get our name out there and knock down our first win in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. The time I’ve spent racing with the NASCAR Xfinity guys, putting my name out there, leading laps, running up-front, they always say names are made here, and that’s true.  My name has definitely grown since I’ve been a part of that series.  Thankful for everybody part of Comcast, Xfinity.  I’m excited for the future of the sport with that.  But we’ll continue to go out there and make a good run in the last race.

“I always say, if you win a race, you can take the rest of the season off until the playoffs start.  That would be a good way to go out.”

QUESTION: Any time I talk to people about your career, they say they can’t believe you can’t get sponsorship.  Somebody that could generate publicity as the first black driver since 2006.  Do you have any sense of what have been the hurdles?

DARRELL WALLACE: “I think, being honest, it’s probably the win column on the Xfinity Series.  There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about that.  That’s probably the biggest battle.  Yeah, you can look at Trucks, say that was three, four years ago, two, three years ago, whenever that was.  Now it’s the new year.  Times have changed.  We’re winless. I guess I’m beating myself up over it right now, that may have something to do with it.

 “The other part of it…I try to represent myself and my team the best that I can.  Times get tough sometimes, you lose cool.  At the end of the day it is one of the most demanding and grueling sports.  Nobody loves finishing second, as we’ve seen in past races.  It’s a sport that you want to get everything you can out of it, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out.  So the sponsorship stuff, everybody’s battling that.  I just happen to be one of those guys that is.”

QUESTION: A few years ago at the BET awards, you took over some of the NASCAR social media accounts, addressed some of the comments.  You seem comfortable handling the role of a potential trailblazer.  Is that easy for you to handle?

DARRELL WALLACE: “I mean, I think that goes back to my parents, teaching me at a young age to never see it as black-and-white.  Everybody’s equal.  Everybody should deserve the same opportunity, the same challenge, the same whatever.  Everybody should live their lives to the fullest with no hassles, no hold-backs, no matter what age, what color you are. That’s why we started the Bubba Wallace Foundation, Live to Be Different Foundation.  Should have no barriers on what I want to do in life, no matter your color, your age, gender, disabilities, no matter what.  It’s all something that should be taken care of.  It’s kind of come a long way in the world.  But you’re right, I don’t have an issue talking about it, taking the forefront of it.”

QUESTION: Do you feel like you’ve had barriers to overcome in racing?

DARRELL WALLACE: “I’ve hit a couple barriers out there on the racetrack growing up.  There’s definitely been some flak in the way.  I’ve been able to handle that the best I could, ignore it, use that as motivation.  My mom and dad always told me to block out the bad and take the good from it, use it as motivation.  I would get the gestures and everything thrown out.  We’d show up the next weekend and win.  That’s how I was taught.  That’s how I was raised_ to ignore the stupidity, continue on and do what I need to do.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, June 6 2017
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