Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – WATKINS GLEN, NY – Still admittedly stinging a bit from a high-speed accident at Pocono Raceway last Sunday afternoon, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup rookie Bubba Wallace was equal parts grateful and optimistic about rebounding from that scene and making his Cup debut Sunday on the Watkins Glen (N.Y.) road course.
Smiling often and even managing a joke or two when he spoke to the NASCAR media Friday morning, Wallace, 24, sounded like his old self and reported that while he was still a little sore from the accident at Pocono, his mindset had already moved forward to what it will take to score a good finish in Sunday’s GoBowling at the Glen (3 p.m., NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“It’s a tough one to watch, but man we hit a ton,’’ Wallace said of his single car accident at Pocono, 11 laps from the finish. “And it’s good to be able to come away and walk away from that and just know that I had a lot of people’s support. That was pretty cool as well. I think that was obviously a big highlight for me was just getting out and seeing everybody reaching out and showing their levels of concern.”
Wallace, who said he had only a bruise and sore foot from the accident, is hopeful that concern from last week turns into positive vibes for this week as the Richard Petty Motorsports driver prepares for his first Cup experience on the historic 2.54-mile road course in scenic upstate New York. To ready himself Wallace is also scheduled to race in Friday afternoon’s NASCAR K&N Pro Series East race – something he seemed really excited to participate in.
“It’ll be fun, it’s going back,’’ said Wallace, who last raced in the K&N Pro Series in 2012. “We’ll see how it shakes out and go beat up on some little kids or get my butt whooped by some little kids. We’ll see.’’
Wallace said he is genuinely hopeful the extra time on track will translate into a better showing on Sunday. He started 35th and finished 29th at Sonoma Raceway, the Cup Series’ other road course, earlier this season. He has three top-10s at road courses in the NASCAR Xfinity Series – all coming at Mid-Ohio and Road America – the best showing was a fifth at Road America in 2015. He had a fourth-place finish at the Canadian Tire Motorsports Park road course in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 2013.
“I mean you can watch the races and see what kind of moves they made, but trying to pick on-throttle time, braking points, and everything, that’s kind of hard to do,’’ Wallace explained of his decision to run the K&N race at Watkins Glen. “So, I’m just going to go out and figure it all out. I’ve got Will Rodgers as a teammate. He is badass on the road courses, so I’m sure I’ll pick his brain before we get going.
“…I looked at Sonoma and I’m like I’ve got to do something to be better than we were at Sonoma. So I took matter matters into my own hands and I’m thankful for [sponsor] Sunoco stepping up and helping to foot the bill a little bit, but I’m just trying to learn for Sunday.”
Wallace is hopeful for a positive showing this week, eager to get closer to his expectation level. After a fantastic and historic runner-up in the season-opening Daytona 500, Wallace and his RPM team have had to regroup and go through the learning curve expected of any rookie – no matter the talent level.
He answered with another top-10 (eighth) at Texas Motor Speedway in April, but has had only three top-20 finishes in the last 10 races. The two summer Pocono stops, in particular, were rough. He had engine problems and finished 38th in the June race and then the accident last Sunday left him with a 33rd place result.
One of the most popular, candid and driven competitors in the Cup garage, Wallace reiterated that one thing he has learned quickly this year is that you have to adjust expectations throughout the season.
“You definitely change them up as you go,’’ Wallace said. “Coming into this season we didn’t know where we were going to stack up at first, so we said 8th to 12th was our range. And I thought that’s good, especially coming off last year and how we ran.
“And then when we started getting into the races and we weren’t really finding ourselves barely inside the top-20 so it’s like okay, we re-adjust. Once that started becoming unfortunately the norm, it’s like okay, so we’re going to fight for top 20’s and those are going to be really good days for us.”
Of course driving for a seven-time champion, 200-race winner and NASCAR’s most famous icon in Petty certainly increases the spotlight and raises the expectations to a certain extent, even for a rookie driver. Wallace is keenly aware of that, but he has high hopes as well and remains confident this team has all the makings to be competitive. It’s just been a learning process.
“We had expectations,’’ Wallace said. “We haven’t really met them at all. I’ve kind of scaled back. I think the ‘King’ is still on that 8th to 12th, and like ‘why aren’t we running 8th to 12th?’ We’re trying.
“But. …it’s a rookie year in Cup. We’re going to go through the struggles but none of us obviously thought we would be so far behind the eight ball. But what’s cool to see is that we show up to the shop each and every week, and show up at the race track every week, and our guys are still digging hard, 100 percent, a 110 percent effort, trying to find something.
“And each weekend it’s like all right, we think we’ve got something really good for this weekend. Hopefully it translates into something. Sometimes it doesn’t, but at least we’re trying things and we’re not just sitting there with our heads in our laps just saying, well, we’ll see how it goes next weekend. We continue to push the efforts to try and get better.”