TALLADEGA, Ala — Darrell Wallace Jr. is a more mature person. He said that a handful of times in his post race news conference on Monday. He’s proving that too. More on that later.
But, Wallace is a NASCAR Cup Series winner. That’s no a fluke. While some “haters” may say so, and that ties into his maturity, I say a driver with past superspeedway success and one that put himself in a position to win Monday’s rain shortened YellaWood 500 from the Talladega Superspeedway isn’t an upset. It’s a legitimate victory for he and 23XI Racing.
Did NASCAR tell God to let moisture to fall out of the sky on Lap 116? Did they tell him to go ahead and let lightning illuminate the sky in the process?
There were 40 cars in Monday’s race and only one of them could be in the lead when the caution flew for a crash involving William Byron, Ryan Preece, Matt DiBenedetto and others on Lap 115. Being in the top spot on a superspeedway isn’t luck. It’s an art. It takes skill.
That’s something Wallace has. See, when he finished runner-up in the 2018 Daytona 500, I wrote then that it was a blessing and a curse. He did so with Richard Petty Motorsports, a team that wasn’t going to contend for wins during most of the other races on the schedule. The second place finish in NASCAR’s biggest race, especially doing so with a team who’s name “Richard Petty” was in it, well that would garner some attention.
But, the new fans would expect to see that more times than not. Unfortunately, the results didn’t show despite Wallace out driving his equipment. The garage knew his talents but it’s hard to show it when the car wasn’t capable of finishing where Wallace’s skill set could take it. You’re only as good as your equipment and lets face it, RPM’s equipment isn’t on par with the top teams of the sport anymore.
One person saw his worth though and that’s a fellow competitor – Denny Hamlin. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has had an eye on his future once his driving career is finished. That best way?
Own a team.
Wallace teamed with long time supporter Michael Jordan and got this thing off the ground. He gained Toyota’s support. He gained a charter. He found sponsorship. He needed a driver.
In came Wallace.
31 races later, they’re winners.
“I mean, emotions obviously super high,” Hamlin said after earning his first victory as a car owner. “I didn’t realize it would be this high at this moment. I understand the process in which it takes to get to this point, winning in NASCAR’s highest level. I’m in every meeting, I’m hands on with the team. I know how hard they work.
“I certainly am more emotional, more happy with someone else’s victory than mine on this day.
“It’s like watching your kid succeed at whatever they’re doing, whether it be baseball, musical theater, whatever, right? I have no relation to anyone on this team, but they are family. We spend a lot of time together, we work hard together. I know the people within the shop work very, very hard. They had to work their tails off to get this team off the ground just 10, 12 months ago.
“I can understand and I appreciate this win more as a car owner because I know how hard the last 10 to 12 months have been putting this thing together and trying to take it up to NASCAR’s highest level, which is not easy obviously.”
The key is to get to this point. Wallace wanted to shed a stigma to get to this point. In a sport that’s predominately a white male sport, the African American driver from Alabama wanted to shed a stigma. He wanted to make it on his own with the only race factoring in being the one on the track, not his skin color.
“I just got to go out and keep doing what I got to do,” he said. “I know that sounds like the typical athlete answer, but for me and the people that know me in my camp, I just want to go out and compete and win races and be here talking to you like this. What allows me to do is that just focusing on the task at hand, which is the race. That’s how I continue to kind of go about it.
“We’ll talk about it post race, but leading up to it and in the moment, I’m just going out to win races and put on the best show I can to show, hey, be part of this sport. Either be at the track or sit on the couch, have a party, watch at home. Whatever it may be, just tune in. You never know what can happen, you could be enjoying moments like this.”
He worked his way up and did so on merit. He won in Trucks but didn’t have much room to move up through the Toyota ranks. Ford and Roush Fenway Racing had a path and signed him to their Xfinity Series program. He ran well. The team ran out of money and had to fold their NXS operation and focus just on the Cup organization instead. Wallace, tried to stay around and remain relevant. Driving anything and everything he could get his hands on.
Aric Almirola was injured in a crash at Kansas and RPM called on Wallace to fill in. He immediately showed what he could do. Eventually though, Almirola would come back. Wallace, looked around for other chances. Then, Almirola took Smithfield to Stewart-Haas Racing. RPM had an opening in the iconic 43. They had one driver in mind.
The problem was, without much funding, the team lacked the resources to compete at NASCAR’s highest level. So, Wallace was a Cup driver, but it wasn’t what he thought it would be. There were some dark days, like the one that occurred here last June.
Just one year ago, in the midst of all the social injustice initiatives, a rope was found in the garage area tied in a noose. That garage stall happened to be Wallace’s. NASCAR was alerted to it and after an investigation, the FBI was brought in to further figure this out.
After a near 24 hour investigation on the case, they found the noose to have been there since last year and that it was bad luck that it happened to be in the same stall that Wallace was using.
See, while some folks blamed Wallace for this incident, it wasn’t his fault in the slightest. NASCAR’s garage stalls are determined by points and by points, Wallace was assigned that garage stall. That rope was already there prior to this weekend and with the garage stalls new for 2019, it was a recent noose but not one tied in 2020.
And yes, it was a noose. The report shows it. So do the pictures. It was tied in a noose. Fact.
Without knowing how or why it was there, NASCAR showed solidarity and support for Wallace in a wonderful display of activism. It was an emotional scene here last June.
All these things kept happening, but Wallace kept fighting on. That was on the surface. Below the surface, he was struggling. He sought help. God had a better plan and it was starting to take shape.
Hamlin’s new team was forming and Wallace’s path to the new No. 23 Toyota was forged. Hamlin’s maturity helped Wallace not only on the track, but off it too.
“We talked about, and he got off social media for a while, and I think that was the best decision ever,” Hamlin said of discussions with Wallace. “Ultimately I get hate tweets as well because I hired him. Those people just need to grow up honestly, appreciate the accomplishment that the kid just had. He drove it to the front, and the caution came out. There’s not much else you can do.
“I think people just have a microscope on him because they want to be critical. They just are a hater. That’s all you can really say about it. I try to say to him, Don’t get your motivation trying to prove haters wrong. Instead get your motivation from trying to do the people that support you proud. That’s where the motivation is going to come from, is the people that are going to support you through the good times and the bad times.
“I’m sure today is a big day for them because when they wear their Bubba Wallace shirt, they know I’m putting myself out there, right? Those people deserve a great day today.”
Wallace agreed with that and acknowledged Hamlin’s help in swaying him away from social media.
“Yeah, I’ve been off my main pages for a handful of months now,” he admitted. “It’s helped out a ton. For me, I would go and read the comments. After a bad race, I would become one of those haters that doesn’t know anything. I would become one of them. Just start telling myself a bunch of dark thoughts. It never helped anything.
“I said for good to get off the main pages there, go out and enjoy life, don’t let people like that… In high school I was always worried about what other people thought of me. I finally let that go once I kind of graduated, matured a little bit.
“(I had) Some sleepless nights. Talking to professionals to help me stay focused on the task at hand. Really listening to my family. Amanda being there pushing me. I go into some of these races and I just have a negative attitude. She rips me in the ass to get in shape and to show up with some positivity.
“I appreciate her. I hate that she couldn’t be here. She had to fly back home for work last night. But it’s my family pushing me and knowing that as I’m being the realistic, sometimes pessimistic person, they hold the optimism for me and help me show back up at the racetrack with a good mindset.
“I was one of those people that was telling myself that I haven’t won. It’s tough to kind of get out of that mentality. It’s like, man, you just want to go out and compete and win. It just so happened today.
“When you go winless for four years, for me I’m so hard on myself, I’m always just pessimistic about why we ran like this, why we ran like that. It sends you down a dark path. I am my own worst critic. It’s 100% true when people say that.
“Yeah, just appreciate everybody that’s in my camp to help me stay focused on the things that matter and eliminate the BS I have to deal with on a daily basis. It’s moments like this where I can go back and thank and appreciate them because we’re here, we’re a winner, got some credibility to my name now.
“I’m not going to be able to please everybody. Doesn’t matter if I won by a thousand laps or won a rain-shortened race, not everybody is going to be happy with it. That’s okay because I know one person that is happy and that’s me because I’m a winner and they’re not.
“I want to win. I want to be competitive. I want to be one of the greats inside the sport. I know there’s a lot of work to be done. It starts with getting your first out of the way, and we were able to do that.”
That helped shape him on and off the track. Once your mindset is better, the vision to success becomes clearer. He came into the race knowing he could win. In fact, he called his shot.
“For some reason I had a feeling we were going to win,” he said. “This was on Friday. I was like, We’re going to go win. Amanda said we were going to win. I had a buddy of mine, Mamba. I told him I’m going to go out and win. I got it documented.”
He’d win. The reason can be tied back to how Hamlin helped show him on what he could do to improve his speedway results.
“Well, I mean, just look at the results, right? A lot of times he got into incidents, but a lot of times he was up front when he got into them. He’s just got a knack for it,” said Hamlin.
“I just think he needed to refine. We had those discussions of how he could get better with it. He made some big changes from Daytona one and Talladega one to Daytona two. I mentioned to him this week, I was like, That’s the right way to do it. That’s how you maintain your track position up front. That’s how you work the lanes.
“I’ve just seen a transition with him, his willingness to take in information and apply it. I think this is not going to be the last time you’re going to be hearing about his name on a superspeedway. He’s very gifted at ’em. He has very, very good instincts.
“Like early on in his career, early 20-year-olds, mid 20-year-old, he gets excited at times. How can you regulate that not to get too high or low when things don’t pan out exactly how you want? I think he’s working on that tremendously. This is obviously going to go a long way with him emotionally and for his self-confidence.”
With a better mindset coming to the track and now the confidence and belief in himself to succeed, look at what happens. Wallace won his first career Cup Series race at the same Alabama race track where one of the darkest moments in NASCAR history that turned to one of the brightest occurred last June.
Now, Wallace can rest assured that his on track accomplishments can open doors for all races no matter their age that they’re welcomed in NASCAR.
“It means a lot. I think about the next generation that wants to be a part of this sport. I think this gives them a little bit more motivation, a little bit more fuel in the tank. It’s important for that because we look at our demographic of our sport and we want it to change so desperately. With everything that’s gone on in the last 16 months, we are trending upwards.
“But we still have a lot of work to do. I know the biggest work that can be done is on the racetrack and we were able to accomplish that today.”
As far as for the team?
“We’re still again in the building stage, we’re still in the growing stages of our team,” Hamlin said. “This is just a huge morale boost, a huge confidence boost for Bubba. There’s a lot of positives that will come out of this that will linger for a very, very long time. I think this is just a stepping point that I’m sure you’re going to see in performance in the last part of this year and into next year. What the media doesn’t see is the work that he’s putting in behind the scenes to be a better race car driver. It just takes time to apply it.”
23XI Racing and Wallace is about to explode in a big way. So is the sport because of it.