Story By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Richard Petty walked onto pit road Sunday evening after the Daytona 500 just like he raced: fast and focused.
As the cars began pulling off the Daytona International Speedway surface following the dramatic season opener, the NASCAR Hall of Famer was in full pursuit – looking for his No. 43 Click n’ Close Chevrolet and its driver, Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., who had just finished runner-up in his first-ever Daytona 500.
A sizable crowd of reporters surrounded Petty, who walked up and down pit road, and into the pits looking for his driver. He didn’t have time to stop and talk though. He was in search of Wallace – for a handshake, hug and congratulations.
Some last-lap contact near the finish line with Denny Hamlin left Wallace’s Chevy damaged and meant a quick trip to the infield medical center for the “all clear,” so Petty headed that way to check on the 24-year-old driver.
After a few minutes inside, NASCAR’s “King” emerged wearing a huge grin topped by his trademark cowboy hat — and sunglasses, even in the night sky. It absolutely appeared as if Wallace’s Daytona effort gave his beloved team owner a healthy dose of 200-mph rejuvenation.
“They were checking his blood pressure and I walked in, I asked him, ‘What was the last thing I told you,’’’ Petty said, smiling.
“He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘I told you don’t mess up my car.’…I think his blood pressure went to 330. I wasn’t going to blame him, that’s for dang sure.”
Petty continued, “That’s a heckuva start…They’d make pit stops and he’d run himself back up to sixth or seventh, he probably passed more cars than anybody, but he was in the race all day long.”
A few minutes later, Wallace made his way to the track’s media center to formally address his record-worthy rookie performance. And it was clear the young Alabama native was dealing with some hefty emotions. He is now the top-finishing African American ever in the Daytona 500 and the impact of his hard work was not only a great season kickoff, it was a significant moment for him and for his sport.
Just as Wallace sat down in front of the microphone, his mother approached – full of emotion and intent for a hug – the first time they had seen each other since the race began four hours earlier.
Wallace asked the room of reporters to give him a moment to compose himself. His eyes were red and still filled with tears when he began taking questions.
When it came to his relationship with the 80-year-old Petty, Wallace wiped his eyes and shared a story.
He spoke about going to dinner with the 200-time winner the night before the 500. Wallace joked that he was Petty’s “Uber driver” and conceded he was completely enthralled listening to the legend retell stories of Daytona racing — on the beach pre-dating the Daytona 500 and then all the fascinating tales of close calls and fantastic triumphs in the sport’s greatest race – which Petty won a record seven times.
“I think having him ‑‑ and then after the race, let me get to that – to where my heart is still pumping over that, sitting on the cot in the infield care center,’’ Wallace said. “And I’m pissed off about the finish, obviously, and he walks in lived, and I’m like, yes, he’s mad, let’s go do something.
“And he walks in, and the first thing he said is, ‘What’s the first thing I told you?’ with a very stern attitude. And I look, and I’m like ‘ummmm,’ and he says, ‘I told you not to wreck the car,’ and I was like, ‘I didn’t do it.’
“So we shared a good laugh, and he came in and gave me a big hug after that. To see the smile on his face, I think you had to be there to experience that moment. All the liaisons in there were pretty nervous for me, too, until he cracked the joke.
“But 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.”
The result of the pairing – and its most promising start – has already resulted in big news for the team less than 24 hours after the Daytona 500 checkered flag flew. Driving 101 and it’s “NASCAR Racing Experience” brand signed on as a primary sponsor of Wallace’s Chevrolet Camero ZL1 for this weekend’s race at Atlanta.
Fans and sponsors alike – ready to embrace and support the pairing of NASCAR’s most legendary driver guiding a young talent full of unlimited potential.