Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Not two minutes after Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. sat down in the Daytona International Speedway media center to field questions about his historic and dramatic runner-up finish in the Daytona 500, his mom Desiree came toward the podium and he stood up to embrace her.
They hugged, they cried. It was both emotional and heart-warming to watch.
“I am so proud of you,’’ she told him.
And through tears of joy, accomplishment and challenges overcome, Wallace finally mustered, “Mom, you’re acting like we just won the race.’’ And laughed.
“We did,’’ she said, still holding the embrace. “We did win that race.’’
For Wallace, his fans and for the Richard Petty Motorsports team he drives for, Wallace’s runner-up finish to Austin Dillon on NASCAR’s biggest stage was essentially a victory. It was certainly a heckuva way for the rookie to start the season.
In addition to the points he earned toward the championship, Wallace also earned the distinction of the highest-finishing African American driver in the Daytona 500.
That historical nod comes on the heels of a phone call from baseball legend Hank Aaron wishing him good luck Sunday morning and a note on Twitter from Lewis Hamilton, a Formula One world champion.
“He just said, hey, good luck, and just have a good race today, and that was it,’’ Wallace said of his phone conversation with Aaron. “He knew that we were pressed for time, and it was five seconds, and that’s all he said. That was really cool. So when [Andrew] Murstein came up to me and said, ‘Hey, Hank Aaron is on the line,’ I’m like, What? That’s awesome. So, I was pretty excited about that.”
Wallace’s was equally surprised for the four-time Formula One champion Hamilton to reach out.
“I look up to him,’’ Wallace said of Hamilton. “He does so many great things in the F1 world. He’s just a genuine badass in what he does, so that was cool, and then he sent out a tweet, and I got weak at the knees. Luckily I was sitting down when I was replying to him.”
The impact on Wallace’s achievement is significant historically. But it is most important personally, as the 24-year old Alabama native embarks on his first season in NASCAR’s big leagues after an unsettling 2017 season when he had no full-time job and his future was in limbo.
He made four starts last season for Richard Petty Motorsports, filling in while the team’s then-driver Aric Almirola recovered from injury. With each start, Wallace improved, finishing with a top-10 at Kentucky Speedway before handing the car back to Almirola.
The Petty team announced it would hire Wallace in October and has been eagerly optimistic about how the young driver would fare. And judging by the response Sunday night driving the No. 43 Click ‘n Close Chevrolet, this first major Daytona 500 test went well.
“That’s a heckuva start,’’ Petty said smiling widely after the race. “We’ve got a new car, a new driver.
“And for the 3 [Dillon] and 43 [Wallace] – it’s been a long time since we’ve seen the two of them at the top of the board,’’ Petty said, referring to the car’s former drivers, Dale Earnhardt and himself.
“So that’s great. A good start for Chevrolet and a good start for us with them.
“Good for Childress too because I can tell him we pushed him to it,’’ he said laughing.
The success of Wallace’s full-time debut wasn’t lost on his team either.
“The kid hasn’t stopped amazing me yet,’’ crew chief Drew Blickensderfer said after the race. “This is the fifth race with him and five times I’ve come out saying, ‘Oh my gosh, we can do this.’ And that energizes this company, the whole team.
“We’re less people and less everything than we’ve ever been just working harder than we’ve ever been to try to get to the front. We feel like a cohesive group now and he’s an integral part of it.
“We got points from the Duel, we got stage points today, finished second. We’ve got more stage points today then we did all of last year and had them all in one weekend.
“We needed that as a company to sell some sponsorship and it won’t do anything but help our confidence and the rookie’s.’’
It all proved to be exactly the kind of start the team needed and the kind of Daytona 500 that Wallace had always dreamed of.
He made the most of the hard-fought opportunity. And this is just the beginning.
As Wallace shared moments about his time first seeing Petty after the race, his eyes teared up again and then broke into a big grin – the look of accomplishment in his eyes, a sense of pride in his voice.
“Just a great day, a great week, seeing him after the Duels, how pumped up he was and just the same amount of emotion, if not more right here after the race,’’ Wallace said.
And he conceded, “Just an incredible moment.
“To be in that position, it takes me back to a week ago when Dale [Earnhardt Jr.] called me ‑‑ as soon as I landed here, he says, ‘Hey, the next three or four weeks are going to be busy for you,’ and I’m like, yeah, no kidding, just come off a stressful night.
“And he just had the words to bring that positive light back up that I try to carry with me every day, and he says, ‘[I’ll] have the opportunity to do things outside of this sport that not really anybody else can. So take that, run with it, and set yourself up for 10 years from now, look back on it and see how you did.’”
So far, so good.