Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. wasn't about to concede an inch, as he battled Denny Hamlin for a career-high second-place finish in the 2018 Daytona 500.
Wallace, who started seventh in his Great American Race debut, didn’t look like a rookie as he went door-to-door with Hamlin, who had carried the Harley J. Earl trophy home two years ago.
On Sunday, Wallace posted the best finish ever for an African-American in the Daytona 500, eclipsing NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott's 13th-place result from 1966. Wallace was also the highest finishing rookie in the race.
But after years of Richard Petty Motorsports struggling to compete against the better-funded organizations in the garage, and Wallace scrambling to gain traction in his racing career, finishing second in NASCAR’s most prestigious race was a bit overwhelming.
“It’s Daytona, Jesus Christ,” Wallace said.
An emotional day
But he could no longer hold in his emotions when his mother came up on stage to congratulate him.
“I feel like I just won the race, dang you, Mom,” Wallace said through tears as he hugged his mother.
“It's a sensitive subject,” Wallace continued. “But I'm just so emotional over where my family has been the last two years, and I don't talk about it, but it's just so hard, and so having them here to support me is ‑‑ pull it together, bud, pull it together--you just finished second. It's awesome.
“I just try so hard to be successful at everything I do, and my family pushes me each and every day, and they might not even know it, but I just want to make them proud. Second is horrible, but it's still a good day.”
Wallace regained his composure and described staying close to the lead during the closing laps. He was running seventh halfway through the race and stayed with the lead pack. When Ryan Blaney and Kurt Busch triggered a 13-car wreck with two laps to go, Wallace sustained minor damage but lined up sixth when the race went into overtime.
“I didn't know if we'd end up ‑‑ well, we still ended up in the infield care center, but just wild,” Wallace said. “I mean, it's Daytona. You've just got to be relaxed for it the whole time. Just like the Duels, I just found myself looking back like a third perspective again, like, just like you're so calm, you're doing great, just kind of pumping myself up, but at the same time just trying to stay focused on the task at hand and just not mess up.
“We battled through a lot of adversity there, and just being able to run every lap, and I wish I could say bring the car home in one piece, but what a great car, what a great Click 'n Close Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. Just fast all day, fast all week, and I think there was a lot of talk in the garage how good our car was at pushing, and I think that gave me a lot of respect out there to be able to do what I can do.”
Impressing with little experience
When Wallace finished third in the Can-Am Duel qualifying race on Thursday, his fellow competitors took notice. Still, Sunday was just Wallace’s fifth-career Cup start and his first Daytona 500.
“I don't have the experience, nor does anybody out there,” Wallace said. “I got the rookie stripes for a reason, so making some of those moves today I was a little bit delayed and a little bit late and luckily kept out of harm's way. But it just all comes with time. Jumping into the Xfinity Series, I was ‑‑ I have the attitude and just the confidence to win every race that you enter. We all know that's not going to happen, so jumping in tonight we had the same attitude, but I knew the circumstances and how this plays out and the moves that you have to make and the defending and blocking that you do.
“I've never done it at this level. I was like, if we get put in that position, here we go, hang on. Unfortunately we never did, but we come to a really close second, and I was able to push our RCR (Richard Childress Racing) affiliate teammate there out to the win, so congrats to Austin (Dillon). That was cool.”
Keep the car clean for 'The King'
Richard Petty gave Wallace one piece of advice prior to the race: Don’t wreck the car. When the King greeted his driver following the race, the drivers shared a laugh over it.
“After the race, let me get to that, to where my heart is still pumping over that, sitting on the cot in the infield care center, and I'm pissed off about the finish, obviously, and he walks in livid, and I'm like, yes, he's mad, let's go do something,” Wallace said. “The first thing he said, ‘what's the first thing I told you,’ with a very stern attitude and look, and I'm like um, and he says, ‘I told you not to wreck the car," and I was like, I didn't do it.
“So we shared a good laugh, and he come in and gave me a big hug after that. To see the smile on his face, I think you had to be there to experience that moment. All the liaisons in there were pretty nervous for me, too, until he cracked the joke. But just a great day, a great week, seeing him after the Duels, how pumped up he was and just the same amount of emotion, if not more right here after the race.”
Andy Murstein, co-owner of Richard Petty Motorsports, believed in Wallace, 24, from the start. The team took a chance on the driver then moved their operation to Welcome, N.C. and joined a technical alliance with RCR.
“This was a great day for RPM and RCR,” Murstein said. “Richard Childress told me after the race what a great way to start our alliance together—first and second—and we helped push Austin to victory. The 3 and the 43 are two of the most iconic numbers in the sport. For the first time, we are pretty much on the same team.
“Bubba showed enormous talent, intelligence, passion and charisma all week. Richard Petty looked at me and said, ‘Andy, we have a star in the making.’ If anyone knows one it’s the King.”