Sometimes it takes a village.
In NASCAR, often the support comes via the driver/owner lot where competitors park their motor coaches.
Fortunately for Bubba Wallace, he didn’t have to navigate the Daytona waters alone.
“I was watching quarter-midget races over there in the infield and Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. gives me a call,” said Ryan Blaney, Wallace’s closest friend in the garage. “He was like, ‘Hey, I need you to go call Bubba and calm him down because I think he was getting really overwhelmed with all the media and the pressure that was kind of being bestowed upon him and we haven’t even got started yet.’
“He and I had a little bit of a talk and not really a talk, but just trying to relax him and telling him that he deserves to be here and don’t let all that other stuff – it’s a good thing that he’s getting recognized in all forms of TV and entertainment and media and don’t see it as pressure, see it as a well-deserved opportunity that he got.”
A remarkable Speedweeks
Wallace did make the most of his Speedweeks. He pushed Blaney to the win in the first Can-Am Duel (running third himself) and finished second in the 500—the top-finishing rookie ever in the Great American Race. (Trevor Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500 in his second Cup start but was not registered for Sunoco rookie honors).
Wallace was fastest during the first half of first practice on Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, setting the pace on Lap 1. He ran 16 circuits but later was topped by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kyle Larson.
Prior to taking to the track, veteran Jamie McMurray teased Wallace in the rookie meeting about the lack of attention paid to him in the week leading up to the Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500 at Atlanta.
“He was like, “Wow, it’s crazy. I didn’t see one article about you after the 500 this week. That’s crazy. I thought I’d see a lot,’” Wallace said of the facetious conversation. “‘Yeah, me too.’ But I think we made a lot of headlines this past week. We did such great things. It was really cool to see the No. 3 (Austin Dillon) on top of the pylon there with the No. 43 behind.
“Obviously, you wish it was roles reversed, but to come off that and have a great Speedweeks to really kickoff our 2018 season really means a lot. It shows all the credit that goes back to the guys. They built that car and gave me the opportunity. I’m excited about this year. I keep saying it. Our attitude and our appetite for being competitive; and just having that hungry appetite is going to carry us a long way.”
And if Wallace ever needs a dose of reality, there will be plenty of supporters to keep him straight, including his mother. Despite the emotional exchange between the Wallaces on the stage in Daytona Media Center following the 500, with his crazy schedule following the race, he didn’t touch base with her until Tuesday.
My Mom called me Tuesday, just to talk and see how everything was,” Wallace said. “She was just still so proud. She sent a message right after the phone call. She usually does that we will talk for an hour and she will send me an hour-long text message for me to read. It’s like geez. She said, ‘Hey, babe, reading the comments from Sunday’s race. Wow, I’m so emotional right now, you did win on Sunday. You won the hearts of so many people.That is better than a first-place finish, because when you do get that first win, oh, my God, there is going to be a riot. LOL Love you and so very proud. And then aren’t you glad I decided to have one more child.’
“That is my Mom. That is where you see I get it from. Talked to my sister last night. My nephew, he wanted to FaceTime me, but we were traveling back from a dinner, so by the time I called back he was already asleep. They will be back down this weekend, so my good luck charms, I guess.”
No longer part of Hamlin's basketball/golf leagues
Although Wallace has been “removed” from the Denny Hamlin basketball and golf leagues following the drivers’ run-in at Daytona, he’ll always have Blaney to rely on. The 24-year-old drivers have been friends since their Bandolero racing days, when the then-10-year-olds raced at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Given the drivers' relationships—and Blaney experiencing with a similar situation two years when he had the responsibility of racing the venerable No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford—he knows precisely what Wallace was going through. Blaney believes the challenges Wallace has endured over the last two years trying to jump-start his career has had a life-changing effect on his friend.
“He proved that Sunday when he was able to kind of put all this behind him and just go out there and race,” Blaney said. “I don’t think he could have handled that a few years ago. I think he’s matured a lot over the past two or three years, and, honestly, I feel like him sitting out a little bit last season really matured him a lot and made him appreciate the chances that he gets and the opportunities, and I think that humbled him a lot and made him grow up.
“I don’t think he could have done it three or four years ago. I think he did a really good job of dealing with everything on the track and off the track and I’m pretty proud of him for that.”