Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – New motor coach. Friends and family tickets to the Daytona 500. Lively media mixer at local go-kart track. Motivational call from Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Check, check, check and CHECK. Darrell Wallace Jr. figures he’s pretty set for his inaugural debut driving Richard Petty’s No. 43 Smithfield Chevrolet in NASCAR’s biggest race, the Feb. 18 Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway (on FOX at 2:30 p.m.).
The popular driver known by friends and fans simply as, “Bubba” showed up to participate in the “NASCAR Road To Daytona 500 Tour” in Orlando fresh off an unexpected cell phone call from the sport’s longtime Most Popular Driver, the recently retired Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“Twenty minutes before we walked in the door, Dale Junior called me and he said, ‘You have the potential of doing things outside of the box, which means outside the sport, that a lot of people don’t have,’ Wallace said.
“I’m excited to see what those things are. As long as I keep hitting every note right, we’ll see what happens. But it was encouraging to hear from him.”
Earnhardt’s sentiment is shared by many. Wallace, 24, is the first African-American fulltime competitor in NASCAR’s premier Monster Energy Cup Series since Wendell Scott in 1971.
It’s a distinction that Wallace recognizes and embraces. However, it doesn’t affect his already highly motivated will to win.
“It means a lot to be here,” Wallace acknowledged to reporters.
“To be here in front of you guys talking today about my first fulltime rookie season, going for the Daytona 500 is all surreal. To look back where I was say six years ago in the truck series, just thinking ‘maybe one day I’ll get there.’
“Well, I’m here and it’s fun to talk about and be a part of and let it all sink in. To enjoy the moment.”
There have already been plenty of big moments. But Wallace knows that first Cup win, that first Cup pole position – qualifying for the Daytona 500 pole position is Sunday – wouldn’t just be a historic moment for the sport, it would be a life-changing moment for himself.
Wallace has always been a bright star shining in the stock car world.
He won a pair of pole positions and collected three top-10 finishes in four starts as an 18-year old in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2012.
He won six times in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series including a dramatic victory in his only 2017 truck start at Michigan.
After driving fulltime in the Xfinity Series from 2015-16, Wallace’s team disbanded in early 2017 after the 12th race of the season leaving one of the sport’s great talents looking for his next opportunity.
When Petty’s driver Aric Almirola was sidelined with an injury last summer, Wallace got “the call” from the team to make a handful of starts.
He improved in each of his four starts in the Richard Petty Motorsport’s car, culminating with an 11th place at Kentucky Speedway. He finished a highly respectable 15th in a summer start here at Daytona.
“That by far exceeded my expectations and I think we can build off that, granted this is totally different, but the attitude we have and the confidence we have, definitely built up from Kentucky is going carry us through the season,” Wallace said. “We kind of set our mark where we want to be.
“I have so much faith in my guys,” Wallace continued. “It’s a new team for me but we worked together for my debut for my first four races in the 43 car. Same group of guys and the same amount of energy coming from them if not more.
“They are all excited I think we’ll have a really fast Camaro.”
Listening to Wallace speak and seeing the genuine excitement in his smile, it’s easy to see the importance of this career move to him. He is taking in all the trappings of finally having achieved the job he wants.
It’s actually a lesson in living in the moment – albeit with an eye on a hugely promising future.
“There’s still a lot [going on] in between now and next Sunday and I’ve got to get through from practice to qualifying to the Duels,” Wallace said. “I’ve got my mind full of a lot of things. I’m pretty sure next Sunday morning when I wake up and doing those couple appearances and time starting clocking down and it’s go time, I’m sure the nerves will start flowing.
“Right now, just good to get back to the race track. It’s been since September for me.
“It hasn’t hit me yet,’’ Wallace conceded with a smile.
“I think about it constantly and think about how the race will shake out watching past races. Watching what guys did and how aggressive they were, the biggest thing for me is paying attention to little details like that.
“It doesn’t matter how much you practice. You could have a week of practice and be taken out on Lap 1 and be done. The alliances you build up on the track during practice, they’ll go out the window because by the end of it, there’s only one trophy,” said Wallace. “If two guys work together, only one’s getting it. I’ll leave that guy hanging to get it, just to get that trophy.”
“NASCAR’s back. It’s a new season, 2018. A lot of exciting things happening for the sport.”