Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LONG POND, PA – As Bubba Wallace prepared to make his first ever Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start last June at Pocono Raceway, he remembers being hyper-aware of trying to do everything “right”.
A highly-regarded NASCAR competitor himself as he moved up through the sport’s ranks, the then 23-year old was hopeful that a solid showing in his four big-opportunity starts filling in for Richard Petty Motorsports injured driver Aric Almirola would possibly result in a fulltime Cup job in 2018. And it has.
A year later, Wallace returns to Pocono again in the famous Petty car – now his own No. 43 Chevrolet – able to vividly recall the emotions of that first race.
“I remember just telling myself not to do anything stupid and mess us up,” Wallace said smiling Friday, just prior to opening practice for Sunday’s Pocono 400 (at 2 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“Knowing that it was kind of a tryout session because I didn’t have anything else after that.
“Now, knowing that for sure I’m racing all year long, my name is on the car this time and it’s my guys and my team. So, I’m excited about that. I think that just helps out the confidence level so much.
“From the start of the season, I feel like I’ve gotten better and better in the car, trying to give better feedback and trying to be a better racer and a better driver and give guys respect and earn that respect, too. So, it all comes with it. You learn something new every day. So, I’m excited to see what’s on the plate for this weekend.”
It’s a full plate for Wallace, who is in a super tight Sunoco Rookie of the Year battle with 20-year old Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron. And it’s been an emotional learning curve at times – right from the green flag of the season-opening Daytona 500, NASCAR’s biggest race of the year.
Wallace, 24, finished runner-up in his Daytona 500 debut, setting the stage for what he expected to be a solid year. However, that amazing start forced him to remind himself at times that this was still a learning situation of many first-time this-and-that’s. The races were longer, the season was longer and the competition level was top-notch – he was in the big leagues now. And it is a different game.
Since the Daytona result, Wallace scored another top 10 – an eighth-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway. In the six races since Texas, he’s had three top-20s – all 16th-place finishes on a wide assortment of tracks from short track (Bristol, Tenn.), to superspeedway (Talladega, Ala.) to 1.5-miler (Charlotte).
To be fair, even veteran drivers have been scratching their heads, considering the 13-race season has been dominated by Ford’s Kevin Harvick, who has five wins and Toyota’s Kyle Busch, who has four. Outside of those two drivers, each team feels a certain urgent need to catch-on and catch-up.
“We’re still trying to figure out some things on that forefront,” Wallace allowed. “I think from the OEM standpoint as well, we all see it as a big picture. We need to step it up, for sure.
“I think we’re missing a little bit on the new body. We’re trying each and every day to figure out stuff. The alliance of RCR, they’re trying stuff as well, so our debriefs are going in the right direction, I feel like. We’re all talking about the same things we need to fix. It’s not like I’m fighting one problem and everybody else is fighting something totally opposite. Nine times out of 10, we usually say the same things.
“So, we have some areas that we can work on and I think that will propel us to better finishes. We’ll see. You never know. As soon as you find something that works, you’ve still got 10 things to catch-up on in this sport. It’s a humbling and demanding sport. We’ll just keep plugging away and keep getting after it.”
Wallace finished 26th in that Pocono Cup debut last summer and improved his showings with each of the three races afterward, culminating with an 11th-place finish at Kentucky Speedway. There are good vibes here at Pocono for Wallace and he’ll take them as he starts the summer push to qualify for NASCAR’s Playoffs.
“Looking back, last weekend was a solid weekend for us,” Wallace said. “It’s little things that are taking our program to the next level. Focusing in on races like that is what we need to do. It was a decent points day for us, and we are closing up on some guys in front of us.
“We still have a lot of work to do to get inside the top 16, but I’m looking forward to kind of shifting gears and getting to the high gear here for the second part of the season and make that final push.”