Column By: JORDAN BIANCHI / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – There have been the inevitable ups and downs during Bubba Wallace’s rookie campaign in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, but the unquestioned high came when the 24-year-old opened the season by finishing runner-up in the Daytona 500.
Afterward, Wallace gave an emotional press conference where he shared a long embrace with his mother, who joined him on the dais, then a heartfelt thanks to those who had supported him in the long journey to reach NASCAR’s premier division. In many aspects Wallace’s surprising result on the track and him breaking down off it ended up overshadowing Austin Dillon’s win.
Ever since, Wallace has turned in the typical rookie season that’s been mixed with good and bad. There was an eighth-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway, followed a week later by a strong effort at Bristol Motor Speedway where he worked his way toward the front then passed Brad Keselowski for the lead under green flag conditions.
There have, however, also been bouts of inconsistency and assorted rookie mistakes. Wallace has finished on the lead lap just four times, 25th or worse seven times, and his average finish ranks 24th of the 31 drivers who’ve started all 17 races this season.
“Looking back (on the Daytona 500), it was pretty much a week and a half of great things that happened for us,” Wallace said. “The weeks you hope it to happen now and you don’t really get that. There are usually some bumps in the road that you hit.”
Wallace joined Richard Petty Motorsports team amidst a rebuild. The team switched manufacturers from Ford to Chevrolet over the offseason, in addition to relocating shops and entering into a new alliance with Richard Childress Racing. A significant overhaul that Wallace admits has taken its toll.
“I don’t think we had an exact clue as to what to expect with everything that went on during the offseason — team change, manufacturer change, alliance and everything that kind of goes together for a satellite team,” Wallace said. “We were starting over. It was like a rebranding for Richard Petty Motorsports and a rebuild mode for the whole team.
“We knew we would have some bad weekends, and unfortunately our bad weekends are 25th, I think before, our bad weekends were 20th. So, we have kind of lost a little bit there.”
RPM’s overhaul isn’t made easier by the fact it is considered a midsize organization, lacking the budget and resources that some of NASCAR’s upper echelon organizations possess.
“Teams that can spend millions and millions of dollars are going to be the ones winning,” Wallace said. “We are spending thousands of dollars.”
Wallace and RPM are presented with a better chance to compete with Cup’s top team on a more even plane as NASCAR’s returns to Daytona International Speedway this weekend for the annual Coke Zero Sugar 400 (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Whether that manifests into another finish like the one in February remains to be seen, though the odds are certainly improved here than most other elsewhere.
And should he improve upon where he finished in the Daytona 500 and win Saturday night, Wallace offers a bit of advice for those watching.
“For me, it’s still a dream to go out and win in NASCAR,” Wallace said. “There’s no other greater opportunity than this weekend, so whatever emotions come after that, have your recorders and video cameras ready.”