Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – CHARLOTTE, NC – Darrell “Bubba” Wallace has arrived—and he’s feeling it.
After years of starts and stops in a racing career that’s finally in gear, Wallace is set to compete in his first full-time season in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing.
What’s more, he’ll be driving the vaunted No. 43 fielded by Richard Petty Motorsports in partnership with Richard Childress Racing.
The significance is not lost on Wallace, who has finally taken the step that matters.
“I’m beyond excited,” said Wallace, the first African-American to drive full-time in NASCAR’s premier series in nearly 50 years. “I might not show it, but, man, this is it. We’re here. We’re at the Cup level. I’m one of the Cup guys walking around today on media day.
“I’m not an Xfinity guy, like ‘Oh, where’s such‑and‑such, he’s in the Cup Series.’ I’m there now, so it’s good. I’m ready to go. We’ve got a lot of stuff that has obviously changed over the offseason, switching over to Chevrolet.
“The new Camaro ZL1 is awesome looking, looks great, especially with our colors on there, that Petty blue touch to it. Moving up camp to RCR, being on campus with them, so I’m adjusting to it all, and it’s all coming together pretty good.”
Wallace got his baptism in the Cup series last year, filling in at RPM for four races while Aric Almirola recovered from a back injury sustained in a ferocious crash at Kansas. Wallace was grateful for the opportunity, but it wasn’t his car—yet.
“Going into those four races last year, it was like, ‘OK, this isn’t my car, this isn’t my ride, no need to throw that extra little bit out there. Let’s just get through.’ And we ended up having some of the best races. We were on the cusp of fighting for a top 10 there at Kentucky. Just got edged out by my good friend (Ryan) Blaney there, so that was that
“It was good to learn in that whole process. I just wish there was that one more that year to see what we could have done at Loudon. Coming back into this year, it’s been so nice to walk into the shop and be like, ‘Hey, man, good to see you again.’ No restarting over. Maybe just learning names of the people that I didn’t meet from behind the scenes, front office people, parts room, stuff like that.
“That’s a new process for me. It’s one of those deals like, OK, we’ve got a good thing going here, so I’m excited about that. We’re ready to get to Vegas for our first on‑track test coming up here in two weeks—and then Daytona.”
CHRISTOPHER BELL EMBRACES NASCAR XFINITY SERIES FAVORITE’S ROLE
Even though Christopher Bell’s body of work in the NASCAR Xfinity Series features a mere eight races, there’s ample reason to install the 23-year-old from Norman, Oklahoma, as the favorite to win the title as a rookie this year.
The reigning NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion, Bell has a victory and five top-10 finishes in his eight Xfinity starts. Bell will be driving the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, a car that has proven itself capable of winning whenever it takes to the pavement.
In addition, Bell will benefit from the services of crew chief Jason Ratcliff, who has 36 career Xfinity victories (as well as 15 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series) and helped Kyle Busch secure his NASCAR Xfinity Series championship in 2009.
Clearly, the potential is there. It’s simply a matter of realizing it, and of that Bell is acutely aware.
“I just have to live up to it now,” he said on Wednesday at the Charlotte Convention Center during the NASCAR Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I’ve got the equipment to do it. I’ve got the crew chief to do it. So I just have to do it.
“To win a championship, especially with this (elimination) format—it’s so hard to do. So you have to be good at Homestead (for the Championship 4 race). If you’re not good at Homestead, you can write it off. That’s a very key part of winning a championship.
“But before that, you have to win races throughout the year to put yourself in that position. We’ve got a long road to go before we worry about winning a championship. We just need to focus on being competitive, qualifying good and capitalizing on the speed that we should have and trying to win races.”
FAMILIARITY MAY BREED SUCCESS FOR CHRIS BUESCHER
For JTG Daugherty driver Chris Buescher, the 2018 season won’t require a get acquainted period.
Last year, Buescher had to learn the ropes and the personnel at a new team. As he starts the 2018 season, the vast majority of his team is intact, and the comfort level is understandably higher.
“There’s always a period of getting to know each other,” Buescher said. “Trent (Owens) being a new crew chief to me was trying to figure out how to adjust through the weekend. There’s always a matter of tuning that in, and I think we have a good understanding of that, too.
“When you put new personnel together, you have to work though things. Until you do that, you won’t be able to perform at your full potential. That’s out of the way for this season, and we feel like some of the other changes that have happened through the off-season will not take near the amount of time to dial in.”
One of the major off-season changes was the model switch from the Chevrolet SS to the Camaro ZL1 race car. The new platform, the first in five years for Chevy, should make a difference, says Buescher, who cites consistency as a primary goal for 2018.
“We had a lot of really good races (last year), but we had a lot in-between that were not something to brag about,” Buescher said. “I think the goal would be to get to a level where we could run what our good weeks were last year and make that our every week.”
DANIEL SUAREZ HAS NO DESIRE TO BE PART OF THE WRECKING CREW
For a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rookie in 2017, Daniel Suarez did an admirable job of keeping the fenders of his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota intact.
Suarez completed 10,084 of a possible 10,581 laps in his maiden Monster Energy Series campaign, a commendable 95.3 percent.
“At the end of the day, if you wreck in the first half of the race, you won’t have a lot to apply for the next time that you go to that race because you didn’t have a lot of race,” Suarez explained. “So I think that’s always very, very important for me to finish races and to spend time with your team to improve your race cars—instead of fixing your race cars.”