Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – LONG POND, PA – For Bubba Wallace, a visit from car owner Richard Petty to his motor home at Daytona earlier this month was a welcome relief.
Wallace quickly learned during that encounter that he won’t have to wait on pins and needles until the end of the year to find out his status with Richard Petty Motorsports for 2019.
The contract extension was announced Saturday as a multiyear deal, but Wallace was more specific.
“I was asleep on my couch in Daytona when he (Petty) comes barreling up to my bus,” Wallace said. “And he says ‘Hey, we’re going to do the next two years with you,’ and I’m like, ‘OK, great.’
“It was just like that. And then I went back to sleep. I thought ‘Oh, I probably put off a bad vibe, because I was knocked out,’ and he’s like, ‘Congrats on the next two years,’ and I’m like, ‘Cool. Thanks.’”
The 24-year-old driver acknowledged that a deal announced in July is a substantial departure from the last-minute maneuverings that have typified his career. With the next two years set, RPM can concentrate on its ongoing search for sponsorship.
“Knowing that we have a set future ahead, we can sell that,” said Wallace, who finished second in the season-opening Daytona 500. “That’s the biggest thing as a whole, how we want to make our program better from the outside looking in.
“That goes a long way. So, for us, we’re still in here turning wrenches and trying everything we can to get our race cars better.”
For Petty, extending Wallace’s tenure with RPM is a move consistent with what the team owner sees as a paradigm shift in the sport— a changing of the guard from veterans to younger drivers.
“We’re going to have a new chapter with the racing crowd and the drivers,” Petty said. “So we wanted to get in on the ground floor on this. If you look back, a lot of the drivers I’ve had kind of went through their deal and then we picked them up on the back end.
“We want to start out a little bit different this time. We’re going to start out on the front end. Bubba was a logical choice for us.”
DENNY HAMLIN THINKS POCONO IS IDEAL CANDIDATE FOR TRACTION COMPOUND
From day one in a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car, Denny Hamlin found magic at Pocono Raceway.
The Tricky Triangle held no mystery for the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, who won both races from the pole during his 2006 rookie season. He won at the 2.5-mile track in 2009 and again in 2010.
But when Pocono got a new asphalt surface after the 2011 season, the magic was gone. Since the resurfacing, Hamlin hasn’t finished better than fourth.
“In Turn 1, the preferred lane used to be the third lane up from the bottom,” Hamlin told the NASCAR Wire Service during an informal question-and-answer session in the Pocono media center. “The lower you got, the bumpier it got, and I was able to do some things to manipulate my line to just be better than guys lower on the race track.
“Now that the line is right on the white line (at the bottom), and you can’t really budge off that, there’s really no advantage to be had. The Tunnel Turn, I feel like we’re pretty exceptional through there still. But even in Turn 3, there were times where you could run the patch of new asphalt and times you could run the bottom, and we would be good at manipulation both lines and making it work.
“Now it’s just so pinned to the bottom and so track-position sensitive, there’s really no advantage anymore.”
Hamlin would like to see Pocono try an application of VHT traction compound to add grip in the outside lanes. That sort of treatment has been successful at such tracks as Bristol, Charlotte and New Hampshire.
“I talked to guys here at Pocono this week,” Hamlin said. “This is a race track I think would greatly benefit from it. I just think about how the racing used to be here. They had to pave a strip of pavement in (Turn 3), and it completely changed the racing at this race track.
“Now you can create that with a spray bottle… (In Turn 1), put some up there in the third lane, and we’ll go find it and put on a good show.”
JIMMIE JOHNSON HOPES TO REGAIN FORTUNATE TIMING THAT LANUCHED HIS CAREER
It’s poetic injustice that Jimmie Johnson is making his 600th start in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in the throes of the worst slump of his career.
The seven-time champion hasn’t been to Victory Lane since June 4 of last year, when he took a checkered flag for the record 11th time at Dover. Since then, the drought has stretched to a career-long 43 races entering Sunday’s Gander Outdoors 400 at Pocono Raceway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Johnson’s performance issues aren’t isolated. Hendrick Motorsports, his parent organization, hasn’t won a race with any of its four cars since Kasey Kahne’s swan-song victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 23, 2017.
But Johnson will take the green flag for the 600th time in NASCAR’s top series with his positive outlook intact.
“I think a top five is probably in the realistic standpoint, stage points, but you never know,” Johnson said on Saturday morning before opening Cup practice at the Tricky Triangle. “That’s that optimism that I refuse to lose. I still know I can win these races—that hasn’t changed. That hasn’t gone anywhere. We just need to get the whole package together.”
To do so, Johnson and his entire team will have to rediscover the critical mass that has propelled the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet to 83 victories and the record-tying seven titles.
“This whole journey I’ve been on just shows me how important timing is for any team, driver, crew chief, owner, whatever it might be,” said Johnson, who turned the fifth fastest lap in final practice at 174.744 mph. “I was very fortunate to have timing for a large stretch of time—manufacturer, team, crew chief, driver all hitting at 10 tenths.
“We individualize the sport very often, and it’s way more than just one person that makes this whole thing go. I’m patiently waiting and hoping that we get the timing back and get all the pieces pushed in the right direction, and we can get back to our form that we once had.”