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LONG POND, Pa. — Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. entered the Pocono Raceway garage early Friday morning walking alongside and chatting with NASCAR’s biggest superstar, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
As always, a huge crowd of adoring NASCAR fans excitedly made their way toward the pair.
Only this time, they didn’t just make a beeline to Earnhardt. They surrounded Wallace — offering him congratulatory back slaps and good luck wishes as he prepared to make his first ever Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start Sunday, driving for Richard Petty Motorsports as a substitute for the injured Aric Almirola.
Wallace, 23, will be the fourth African-American to compete in NASCAR’s marquee division and the first since 2006 when Bill Lester made two starts for Bill Davis Racing with a best showing of 32nd at Michigan.
But the prevailing good feeling here toward Wallace isn’t only about this important history — it’s about important opportunity.
“I was talking about this the other day and it’s pretty cool to see how many people are in my corner,” Wallace said. “You don’t think about that on a normal basis. This is a big opportunity to prove myself and make them all very happy.”
The reality is most people are already pleased for Wallace, one of the most popular and outgoing drivers in the sport. The support inside and outside the garage has been tremendous on all levels.
“Jimmie Johnson reached out pretty much as soon as we announced it,” Wallace said of the sport’s reigning seven-time champion. “He said, ‘See you on Sundays now, bro.’ I was like, ‘All right, that’s cool. That’s really cool.’
“He said that if I needed anything to reach out to him. … At the end of the day it’s just a race car with a little bit more horsepower, a little bit bigger venue, a little bit bigger crowd, but at the end of the day I’ve been waiting for this moment for 15 years or however long I’ve been racing — a long time. Now it’s finally here, so it’s just another stroll in the park.”
Perhaps more of a jog, Wallace conceded Friday after qualifying the No. 43 Smithfield Foods Ford 16th on Sunday’s starting grid. This is the big time. And the sport’s Drive for Diversity graduate and Rev Racing product has spent a lifetime preparing himself for this moment.
Almost immediately after his family moved from Alabama to the Charlotte area to better position Wallace in the sport, he established himself as a driver to watch.
He won his first start in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East at Greenville, South Carolina, at age 16.
In his first four NASCAR XFINITY starts in 2012 — at the age of 18 — he had three top-10 finishes and won the pole position at Dover International Speedway.
A year later, Wallace won his first NASCAR national series event, a Camping World Truck Series race at Martinsville, only weeks after his 19th birthday. Since then he has collected four more truck series victories and 34 top-10 finishes in 84 XFINITY Series starts.
He was ranked fourth in the XFINITY Series championship before his Roush Fenway Racing team announced this week it will withdraw from full-time competition to pursue sponsorship following his start at Pocono on Saturday.
It all makes the timing of Wallace’s ride in the No. 43 serendipitous. And Wallace intends to make full use of his “big chance,” hoping to parlay this part-time opportunity in the big leagues into a full-time job in the Monster Energy Series next year.
That starts this weekend in Pocono, where Wallace is determined to turn in a good effort. Aside from preparing for the XFINITY Series race on Saturday, Wallace joked about his lack of time on track — only two hour-long Monster Energy Series practice sessions — saying “We decided to pick the weekend where I get the least amount of practice possible.”
The goal for Wallace is in doing well enough in these starts (Almirola is expected to be out 5-9 more weeks) that he gets a chance to race full time in the series. It may start with big results this weekend, or it may be a combination of his efforts in the next few weeks.
Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Daniel Suarez was quick to offer support and encouragement. He also got a rather sudden and unexpected opportunity in the Monster Energy Series ranks, taking over the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota after veteran Carl Edward’s unanticipated retirement this past offseason.
“It’s a lot going on, a lot of interviews. … But it’s a lot of opportunity,” Suarez said, adding, “When we’re 8 or 10 years old, we dream to be in this position and luckily we get this opportunity. I’m very happy for him. I’ve known him since racing in the K&N Series.”
Wallace’s new boss, NASCAR’s “King” Richard Petty is optimistic about his new driver and sympathetic to all the attention being directed toward his young driver.
“Well, it’s going to be different, especially since this is his first race in the Cup Series and there’s a lot of pressure on him, not a lot of pressure on us,” Petty said. “It really comes down to how he adapts to the Cup Series deal, and we’re willing to give him a chance.”
Petty smiled and conceded there’s only so much the 200-time race winner could do to help Wallace behind the wheel.
“We’ve talked a little bit about what the car’s doing but I can’t help him. … It’s been so long since I’ve been in the car,” Petty said. “He’s got a lot of attention, so maybe being bolted down in the car he’ll settle down. He’s got it handled.”
Wallace was 19th fastest in his first Monster Energy Series practice Friday, and only Trevor Bayne ran more laps (22 laps to Wallace’s 21). He advanced to the second round of qualifying and will start 16th on the grid — ahead of his friend Johnson (19th).
“I don’t know what more I could ask for,” Wallace said. “These guys are awesome, all pumped up to be here and it’s a good showing for our Smithfield Ford. Hopefully, RP (Richard Petty) likes it, the King’s been smiling about it. He gave me a little fist pump earlier.’
“It’s a big moment for me and a big moment for the sport. Sunday is all about driving a clean race. Don’t make anybody mad, try to gain and earn respect and prove myself to everybody. I’m looking just for a good, solid race and gaining respect from the veterans here and to prove to everybody that I belong in the series.”