Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Since a spectacular and celebrated runner-up finish in his season-opening Daytona 500 debut, Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. says he’s found a necessary balance between huge optimism and a big dose of confidence that comes with such a fantastic season start and the harsher reality of a steep, not unexpected rookie learning curve thereafter.
Since his historic run at Daytona International Speedway last month, Wallace has had finishes of 32nd (at Atlanta), 21st (at Las Vegas) and 28th (at Phoenix) in the three Monster Energy NASCAR Cup races afterward. He’s ranked 18th in the standings and still holds a nine-point lead over fellow high profile rookie, William Byron entering Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at California’s Auto Club Speedway (at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Earlier this week, Wallace broke up the three-week #NASCARGoesWest swing with a “field trip” of sorts with his team owner, NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty. He rode snowmobiles and bonded with “The King”. The Alabama-native had never visited Idaho and Wyoming before and he figures the timing and the time together presented a good re-set for the early season.
“It’s been actually really good,” Wallace said Friday morning addressing reporters before opening practice in California.
“Ever since Daytona all the way up to that was just crazy madness and now I’ve been able to kind of relax and stay focused on what we need to do without any extra cameras or attention or anything.”
Of his season to date?
“Personal grade? I don’t know,” Wallace said. “It’s a learning curve, that is what I’m going to label it as. We are trying to figure everything out. I’m laying my head down at night not leaving a stone unturned, so in that regard I give myself an A+.
“But, we are just not hitting on all cylinders right now as a team. We are still figuring everything out from the switch, so it’s going to take us a couple of races. We are going to have some really good races, we are going to have some bad races, but we are going to keep our heads up and keep digging.”
It’s a positive outlook that has served him well over the years. And it will likely come in handy this week at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway as Wallace makes his Cup debut on the track.
Wallace said he feels comfortable at the track despite the fact his No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Camaro is a Chevrolet and his previous starts were in a Ford. He said he still remained particularly encouraged and optimistic about the weekend considering he finished third there in the 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series race and sixth in last year’s Xfinity race.
“We have had a lot of success here, a lot of good runs here in the Xfinity stuff,” Wallace said. “Just trying to utilize some of that and take that into today and learn throughout this weekend.
“This place is so wide, so many grooves and the biggest thing is tire fall off. Once that happens, start moving up to the fence. Just got to manage it the best we can and take care of it all day.”
Wallace smiled about Auto Club Speedway scheduling only an hour of opening practice at a time he feels he needs the most time on track, “It goes by quick,” he allowed.
“There is not a lot of time to be wasted, but at the same time you’ve got to manage that and not overstep it. It will be fine though.”
It’s possible that Wallace’s time away from the track with the great champion Richard Petty this week will compensate some for the high technical learning curve. The two spent time bonding outdoors and inside, even playing board games. The conversations and lessons learned were more “real life” than racing oriented.
“He might be the boss, but I’m still competitive,” Wallace said smiling and noting he beat Petty in a game of Rummikub.
“But, just seeing that and being able to have those in-depth conversations about racing, about life and what not, is really special.
Most important thing Petty has taught Wallace in their time together thus far?
“You can overcome a lot of things if you put your mind to it and you have the will to do it, but you can never overcome fate,” Wallace said. “That is the biggest thing that has stuck out to me. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. If it’s not then, move on.”