Darrell ‘Bubba’ Wallace Is Enjoying Ridin’ With The King

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, February 19 2018

Darrell ‘Bubba’ Wallace, driving for the legendary Richard Petty, appears to be headed for big things in the Cup Series. On Sunday, he finished second in the Daytona 500. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Ashley R Dickerson)

After finishing third in his Can-Am Duel race Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway, Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. was greeted by his “bodyguard.”

You may have heard of the guy.

“His name is Richard Petty,” said Wallace, referring to the NASCAR Hall of Famer and his Cup Series car-co-owner. “I have never seen him that excited before.  That was the coolest thing. Him coming up, huge hug.  Sunglasses were off.  Got to see how much he was truly excited about that. So that’s probably the highlight of the night, better than finishing third.  Just seeing how pumped he was, the words he said that were definitely words of encouragement.”

That scene undoubtedly was reprised Sunday night, when Wallace finished second in his first Daytona 500 _ a race “King Richard” won a record seven times during his seven-time championship career, well before the traditional season-opener was dubbed “NASCAR’s Super Bowl” and “The Great American Race.”

Indeed, Wallace’s runnerup result to Austin Dillon in the No. 3 Chevrolet made famous by seven-time Cup champ Dale Earnhardt was steeped in convenient storylines. A Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rookie, Bubba was hired last October to return Richard Petty Motorsports to contender status.

Coincidentally, on Sunday Wallace became the first African-American to drive in the Daytona 500 since Wendell Scott in 1969. Wallace’s finish was the best by an African-American in the race’s 60-year history, besting the 13th-place result by Scott in 1966.

And there’s even more to Wallace’s story _ he received a surprise pre-race vote of confidence via a phone call from Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Hammerin’ Hank Aaron, the man who broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record.

“I have so many emotions going on right now,” Wallace said moments after exiting his car. “Thank you to ‘The King’ for giving me this opportunity.” 

Bubba Wallace and the No. 43 RPM Chevrolet went door to door with the best in the business Sunday at Daytona. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Ashley R Dickerson)

As the laps wound down, NASCAR Integrated Marketing Communications couldn’t have written a more timely or emotional script. Twenty years after Earnhardt ended a career-long drought by winning the 1998 Daytona 500 in the black No. 3 Chevy Monte Carlo fielded by team-owner Richard Childress, Austin Dillon _ Childress’ grandson _ returned the number to DIS’ Victory Lane. Dillon did so via a last-lap, bump-and-run move that was absolutely Cap E-like.

A Lap 199 incident took out a number of front-running contenders and forced two extra laps of “NASCAR Overtime.” On the first OT lap, Aric Almirola assumed the lead. Almirola is Petty’s former fulltime driver and a Tampa, Fla., native of Cuban heritage who, like Bubba, is a graduate of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity initiative. So, Almirola appeared headed toward victory in his debut for Stewart-Haas Racing in the No. 10 Smithfield Ford Fusion. Recall that No. 10 car most recently was driven by diversity darling Danica Patrick, whose Cup career ended Sunday with a wreck…and likely consolation from Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, her new GoDaddy.

As the lead pack approached Turn 3 of the high-banked, 2.5-mile trioval, Dillon used the considerable aerodynamic push from Wallace’s No. 43 Chevy Camaro ZL1 to reel-in Almirola. Blocked by Almirola, Dillon tapped the No. 10’s rear bumper, sending the Ford spinning into the outside wall. Dillon and Wallace continued to the finish line, with Dillon and his Camaro winning by 0.260-seconds. Denny Hamlin, the 2016 Daytona 500 champ and driver of the No. 11 Toyota Camry, finished third after scuffling with Wallace.

“I did what I had to do,” said Dillon, who was 7-years-old on the Sunday he joined his grandpa and Earnhardt in DIS’ Victory Lane two decades ago. “He (Almirola) was trying to block me and I just turned him. We had a run and I stayed in the gas. It’s so awesome to take the No. 3 car back to Victory Lane. This one is for Dale Earnhardt and all those Earnhardt fans. We’re going to keep kicking butt for the rest of the year.”

Fittingly, King Richard had given Wallace a similar message after his finish in the Duel. “He was, ‘All right, Bud, good job,’ ” Wallace said. “A big bear hug from the King was awesome.  He was just proud.  Good to see his car was running up-front, where it needs to be.  You could really tell and see his emotion. Really had to be there to feel it. Definitely made you feel good.  Felt like we just won the race, as proud as he was.”

Wallace, 24, added that an even-younger Bubba might have been bouncing off the walls in anticipation of Sunday’s race after that third-place run. Instead, he hit “a big re-set button” on Sunday.

“All-in-all a great day for our team,” Wallace said. “Just an incredible experience for me to be able to be here for my first Daytona 500. My nerves are shot right now. The King comes in all mad at me and says, ‘After all I told you, what was the first rule I told you to do?’  I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ I lost my breath and he said, ‘Don’t wreck the car’ and we…oh!  Thank you to the King for keeping me young, keeping him young as well.

“We know how much stress this team has been through in the last three or four months just trying to get this program together.  For me to come out here with this hectic three months I’ve had with the Facebook Series ‘Behind the Wall – with Bubba Wallace’…hell of an ending for us tonight. P2 for my first Daytona 500, I’ll take it.

“There were a lot of close calls out there on the racetrack in just getting experience in my first Daytona 500. We wanted to do two things. We wanted to run a lot of laps and not wreck the car. We came home with one of those. We ran all the laps and got wrecked there at the end. But that’s part of it. When you put that aside, what an unforgettable week-and-a half it’s been.”

In addition to MLB hero Aaron, Wallace received encouragement from Lewis Hamilton, the

Reigning Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton sent Bubba Wallace words of encouragement on Sunday. (Getty Images)

four-time/reigning Formula One World Driving Champion from Great Britain.

“Wow. That makes you feel good,” Wallace said. “It definitely pulls on your heartstrings a little bit, just to know that you’re being watched by so many greats. They’re the ones you’re looking up to and they reach out to you and that’s really cool. So, I kind of feel like that little kid that looks up to me and I respond back to them. So, I kind of get that little girl feeling in me, or little boy feeling, or whatever it is.

“But it was just a great day and a great week for our Click n’ Close team. The new Chevy Camaro ZL1 is in Victory Lane and the RCR (ECR engine) alliance is one-two, so it’s pretty good. It’s good to see the No. 3 back in Victory Lane here in Daytona with the No. 43 at the top of the board as well.”

Given the tenuous state of race relations in America, Wallace’s finish figures to generate plenty of positive media for NASCAR. Consider that the NFL spent the last season dealing with a number of players _ primarily African-American but Caucasians, too _ taking a knee during the National Anthem in protest of the treatment of minorities by police.

This past weekend’s NBA All-Star Game festivities produced an exchange of Donald Trump-like tweets between Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James and conservative commentator Laura Ingraham, in which the latter suggested that James “shut up and dribble” and refrain from wading into the political realm. James immediately responded that he would do no such thing.

Wallace certainly is not immune to this conversation, specifically the one about his path to a seat in NASCAR’s premier series as first fulltime African-American driver in Cup’s “Modern Era.”

A native of Mobile, Ala., Wallace made his Cup Series debut as substitute driver for the injured Almirola in the No. 43 Ford at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway last June 11. Wallace showed rapid improvement during his four-race stint, substantially improving his finishing position in every outing and culminating with an 11th-place result at Kentucky Speedway on July 8.

A graduate of both NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity and NASCAR Next programs, Wallace has broken several barriers and records throughout his tenure in the sport. Wallace initially rose to prominence in 2013 with a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victory at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, where he became the first African-American driver in 50 years to win a NASCAR national touring series feature since Hall of Famer Scott. The next season Wallace finished third overall in Truck Series points with four wins for Kyle Busch Motorsports.

Wallace moved fulltime into the NASCAR Xfinity Series with Roush Fenway Racing in 2015, earning 31 top-10 finishes over the last three seasons before making his Cup debut in June with RPM.

Yeah, that’s the (information) gap we have to kind of bridge there,” Wallace said on Media

Bubba Wallace had a great Speedweeks this year, culminating with a podium finish in the 500. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Ashley R Dickerson)

Day last week at DIS. “I kind of went on a hiatus these last three years just giving it my all and just coming up short in the Xfinity Series, and I think with the amount of coverage that I’m getting right now and the entourage that I have following, a lot of people expect, ‘Oh, who’s this kid coming up through with this media; he should be winning.’  And they don’t really pay enough attention to the sport to know the ins and outs to know that winning one of these races is not just a cakewalk.  It could be taken away from you in just a matter of seconds, inches.

“There’s that…it’s hard to relay that message.  Like I’m saying, it’s not turn on the TV, ‘Oh, he’s running 15th.  Well, that’s…who is this kid?’ You’ve got to look at all the circumstances.  You’ve got to look at what I’m going through that day, if we’ve missed the setup or even if we’ve had engine problems or something.  That’s just something that’s just holding us back. Some of these days, some of those races I’m going to be running top five and I’ve got to be able to do the best at managing that. There’s going to be some weekends where I can’t find my way out of 20th or 15th. That’s just like everybody in the sport.  We all have our good days, we all have our bad days.  You’ve just got to capitalize on those good ones.”

Wallace recounted how he caught the racing bug late _ around age 16 _ after competing in the usual stick-and-ball sports. I played basketball before I started racing,” said Bubba, apparently realizing he was no King James. “I did one season of football, and I hated it.  I didn’t like the practicing part.  It was too hot.  I was like a nose guard.”

So racing became an option, something to do for fun with the family as well as to challenge himself.

“My dad was always asking…’What do you think about this car?’ ” Bubba said. “Sometimes it would be like, ‘Look what I just got you, this is what we’re going to go race next weekend,’ and I was like, ’OK!’  We would find ways to be successful and become really competitive week-in and week-out, and that’s how we just kept climbing up the ladder.

“The next thing you know, one door led to another and we were in the K&N Series.  We were with Revolution Racing, we were with JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) and we didn’t…we weren’t like, ‘Wow, we didn’t expect this to happen’ _ we just did it.  I just wanted to win at everything I climbed in, and winning goes a long way in the sport.  It doesn’t go all the way but we just kept doing that, and it was on pit road at Dover, we qualified on a pole for the K&N race, and it was like, ‘Can’t really turn back now.  We’ve got to stick with it.’  Went on to win that race.”

So, the idea of riding with and creating history is not a distraction for Bubba, even if the increased media scrutiny in Cup is.

“I know it. I pay attention to it,” Wallace said. “I follow a lot of people on social media, and it’s being put out there, but I’m doing my best at managing it, keeping it behind me and that’s the best thing I can do. I let all the media, ‘Oh, here comes Bubba out of the K&N Series’ and all that stuff, see how he stacks up and I’m like, ‘I’ve got to be top of the board.  I’ve got to win qualifying.  I’ve got to win the race.’  What do you do?  You wreck-out because you’re not focused on what you really need to be focused on.

“It’s one thing that I’ve learned over the years.  Even my Xfinity debut, I wanted to do the best that I could and over-try, overstep my boundaries and my day is done.  What do you know, you look at the stats sheet and Bubba finished 30th. That’s great.  My debut wasn’t much better in the Cup car. Damn (caught) speeding four times.  That was a little bit more in my control. But I went out there…I was super- calm and relaxed that day and it felt so good to be in that state of mind, to be able to go out and just race and make those mistakes and learn from them and not be thinking like, ‘Holy crap, I’m not leading the race right now.  Let’s speed because of that.  Let’s just get worked up about something that’s out of my control.’  For me it was just to be super-relaxed, and that’s how I’m taking this season with everything that’s riding on it.”

Wallace reiterated that RPM remains in catch-up mode, despite the fact he’s fully moved into the shop in Mooresville, N.C., and has been welcomed by King Richard, business entrepreneur Andrew Murstein and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer.

Yeah, I think we’ve still got a lot of headway to clear out,” Wallace said. “Coming from where we were at last year, where they were at least year, to where they’re at now, they’ve made a lot of improvements.  I think this is a great switch over to Chevrolet and to RCR. I think that’s going really well.  But no matter _ it doesn’t take just one season for a team just to be like a light switch and turn things up.  It’s going to take us a little bit, and I’m just excited to get to Atlanta, Phoenix and Vegas and places like that to really see how we stack up.  You know, it’s a little bit up in the air of what we’ll be like, but from how we ran last year at Kentucky and my first four races, I’m excited about it. It’ll be good.

It’s definitely a stress-reliever knowing that I have a permanent home for this year. I couldn’t be more thankful to Richard Petty, the King, for allowing me to step behind the wheel of the No. 43 and let me pile in it all year and let me showcase everything.  Just thinking about that and looking where we were at last year at this time, telling you guys, ‘Yeah, we’ll be racing at Homestead,’ basically BS-ing, just to try to get you guys to latch onto that and it didn’t work out.  To be here now and say that I’ll be running fulltime as a rookie in my first Cup season is pretty damned cool.”

Wallace claimed he feels no added pressure to be wheeling the No. 43, even if it’s not sporting iconic “Petty Blue” livery.

Richard Petty told me before climbing in, ‘No need to be a hero.  No need to overstep anything that you’re doing,’^” Wallace said. “I’m here for a reason, and I’m here because I’ve proved my point, so just go out there and do what you do. I’m just a race car driver.  I’ll whoop their ass any day.

I know how hard it is to win in this sport.  We obviously want to win, but we have to make sure we’re all in line, all of our stars are in line and those good days we have to capitalize on.  But as long as we come out of this gate competitive and proving each and every race like I did my first four starts, we’ll be good.”

As for carrying the mantle of first African-American driver to run Cup in 50 years, Bubba said he plans to enjoy the journey.

You guys (media) are going to keep putting the ‘black driver’ out there so I’m telling fans to embrace it because that’s all they’re going to keep hearing,” said Wallace, acknowledging that February is Black History Month. Yeah, absolutely.  I’m looking forward to it, to be able to represent the black culture.  So it’s good.” 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, February 19 2018
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