Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LAS VEGAS, NV – Bubba Wallace smiled and conceded that the positive reaction to his season-best third-place finish at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last weekend was immensely gratifying, if probably a little more low-key than his runner-up showing as a rookie in the 2018 Daytona 500.
More importantly to Wallace, the work at Indy was a huge boost of confidence for his No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet team and a well-needed confirmation that this storied single-car organization is making great strides to raise its competitive expectations.
That third-place finish at Indy was Wallace’s first top-10 of the 2019 season. And the popular 25-year-old driver essentially expected the good run from the time he completed a handful of laps early into the first practice of the Indy race weekend. He was fast from first practice to the race’s checkered flag.
Duplicating the work in Sunday’s South Point 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) in an older car at a venue – the 1.5-mile Vegas oval – where the team has struggled comparatively, is an entirely differently story. But the progress from last week and really, from this summer, is vindication the organization is on the right track. And the uptick is important.
“It’s actually been a pretty smooth week, surprisingly,’’ Wallace said Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“It was a solid week, solid Sunday for us. Just being able to build off of that. I think that is the biggest thing I keep saying. We are such a small team and that was a brand new car that we ran [only] at [the second] Michigan [race]. So that car won’t be in rotation again until Kansas.
“I’d like to say we will go out and run top-five again,’’ Wallace conceded, cautioning, “but I’m not really sure until we hit the first couple of laps on track and get to see where our speed is. I think for our team, it’s a spotlight or a highlight of what our team can do.”
Perhaps the best part of the Indianapolis weekend – beyond the finish – is the confidence generated and the promise that better days are on the immediate horizon.
“The car this weekend was the one we ran the last time here,’’ Wallace said. “Obviously since then, we’ve made a lot of improvements to our cars and our team to better our programs. I’d like to say we will go out and run top-five again, but I’m not really sure until we hit the first couple of laps on track and get to see where our speed is.
“I think for our team, it’s a spotlight or a highlight of what our team can do,’’ Wallace said of the Indy showing. “The funding is in place, but start getting resources out of that, start getting more cars, more people, just man hours on the car. We can do those types of things and it’s awesome to see.’’
To his point, Wallace had only a single top-20 finish (17th at Martinsville, Va.) through the opening 17 races of the year. But since the team has received additional funding and resources, he has three top 20s in the nine races just since Daytona, where he earned a 15th-place showing. He’s turned in top-20 performances two of the last three weeks.
And the recent work – by Wallace and the RPM team – has not gone unnoticed.
“They needed that, he needed that for his own confidence,’’ NBC Sports broadcaster Dale Earnhardt Jr. said of Wallace’s work at Indianapolis.
The season’s remaining 10 race tracks certainly have some promising history for Wallace.
At Las Vegas, where he will race Sunday afternoon, Wallace finished runner-up in the 2014 Gander Outdoors Truck Series race. And there’s a similar story at Dover, Del. where Wallace’s best Cup finish at the mile-long track is 23rd, but he was runner-up in the 2016 Xfinity race there.
His 17th-place finish at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway this year is his best Cup showing in three series races at the track. The paper-clip half-miler has proven to be a jewel in Wallace’s NASCAR career. He has two Gander Outdoors Truck Series victories there and two more top-five finishes.
And Wallace has already celebrated in Victory Llane at the season’s Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway – winning the 2014 season finale Truck race there.
“I haven’t looked at it from that standpoint, it’s just ironic how it worked out,’’ Wallace said. “It’s not like I’m thinking this is a big stage and we have to go out and perform. Every race is a big stage for me, as far as taking my career to new heights and new levels.
“Indy is just the same as Martinsville for me. Every race is special. ‘’