LAS VEGAS, NV — Darrell Wallace Jr., or as you may know him as “Bubba Wallace” has never shied away about him being an emotional driver. Following a runner-up finish in the 2018 Daytona 500, the Alabama native was brought to tears in the media center.
Wallace, 26, has always wanted to make it as a NASCAR driver. The talent has been there, it’s just that the right equipment hasn’t. In the Truck Series, he did have good trucks as he raced for Kyle Busch Motorsports. In 44 starts at KBM, Wallace took five trips to victory lane to go along with 14 top five finishes and 26 top 10’s.
Going back to KBM for a third year in 2015 made no sense. It was time to move up. That’s when Roush Fenway Racing came in and signed Wallace to a new deal for their NASCAR Xfinity Series program. In 2015 and 2016, he was seventh and 11th respectively in the final standings. While he never won, he did have six top five finishes and 23 top 10’s to his credit in 66 starts.
Unfortunately, the equipment just wasn’t up to par in comparison to the other big teams in the series. He came back in 2016 and shined. Wallace, started the season off with eight top 10 finishes in the first 13 races, but funding had dried up and he was out of a ride just a quarter of the way through the season.
The talent was proven to be there but in a sport that needs the driver to bring money, he didn’t have any. He’d get another shot in the Truck Series on a one-off deal and win that summer in Michigan. Then, he’d get his shot with Richard Petty Motorsports when Aric Almirola was injured in a scary crash that May in Kansas. That led to a four race deal which saw Wallace improve each race going from 26th to 19th to 15th to 11th.
In turn, that led to a full season slate at RPM for 2018. His first race was a runner-up. But, with a runner-up in NASCAR’s Super Bowl on a track that promotes equal racing among all 40 starters, it set up some unrealistic expectations. Everyone assumed that Wallace was the young driver everyone has been searching for and that Richard Petty Motorsports was back. The real fans and those in the know, knew that Daytona is a bit of smoke and mirrors. You can’t take much away from a solid run on a superspeedway and equate that to the rest of the races.
The rest of the season was rough for him. So was 2019. Wallace, did get a third place finish in the Brickyard 400 last September, which was the highlight of his year. But, in 76 career Cup starts, he finished 20th or worse in 57 of them.
It wasn’t necessarily all Wallace, it was the equipment. RPM never said that they had top equipment. They had a lot of change and not a lot of budget to compete with the big boys of this sport.
That drove Wallace into depression and in a dark spot. While the charismatic and fun loving driver off the track was trying to have fun, he just at the end of the day wasn’t.
So, RPM brought back his comfort in Jerry Baxter to be his crew chief for Wallace in 2020. Most of his success at KBM was with Baxter. Wallace, said of the change this past offseason that Baxter is calming to him. He can get the best out of Wallace.
Well, so far this season, it’s true. Wallace, finished 15th in the season opening Daytona 500 and sixth in the second race of the year, the Pennzoil 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Its been a great start to the year and Wallace even pointed to an example during Sunday’s race to what Baxter can bring.
“We had a shot at a good finish and we capitalized on that,” Wallace said after earning his fifth career top 10 finish in Cup. “All-in-all, it was a good day and a win for us. It was just a good gamble call. We were terrible on restarts. It would take us ten or fifteen laps just to get going and get the car underneath us. Then, we could start fighting our way up there.
“There were frustrating moments over the radio, just trying to make this Coke Energy Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE better. I know how I lose my cool a little bit, but one of the main reasons I brought [crew chief] Jerry Baxter in was to calm me down and show that light at the end of the tunnel. Every time I fired back, he said ‘I get it, you’re fine, we’re going to be fine’ and he was right. It was a good call by the team and everyone involved. Coke Energy, I appreciate them coming on board for this race. It was a great outing and it shows like we were running on some Coke Energy out there.”
Last year, even on a pit call to get him track position in the end, Wallace may have crashed in the end of faded. On Sunday, he listened to the calming voice of Baxter and capitalized with a top 10. Will all races be this way? No. Some races when speed is a factor in the end, Wallace may not have it to get much inside of the top 10. But, if he can keep rattling off top 15 after top 15 with subpar equipment, then the money will start coming in again and the subpar equipment in turn gets better, which in turn helps Wallace get closer and closer to the front.