At first, Darrell Wallace Jr. was all smiles, entering the Daytona International Speedway media center joking around. But a few seconds later, his mom ran up to him, crying out of joy for her son.
“I waited so long for this, baby,” Desiree Wallace, his mom, shouted in his arms.”
“It feels like I won,” he said, tears in his eyes. “Pull it together, bud. Pull it together. You just finished second.”
— Joseph Wolkin יוסף וולקין (@JoeWolkin) February 19, 2018
The tears continued for several moments, flowing down his eyes as his older sister, Brittany Wallace, joined him on the podium. The deep breaths and mid-sentence breaks showed just how important this day is for the Alabama native and his family.
“I just want to make my family proud,” he said, tearing up once again.
That he did.
Wallace came a few feet away from defeating eventual race winner Austin Dillon to become the first African American to win a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race since Wendell Scott did so in 1964 in Jacksonville.
Congrats to @BubbaWallace on finishing an impressive 2nd place today. Bubba carried a ton of weight on his shoulders the last 10 days. Media responsibilities that smothered him personally. But he handled it like a veteran.
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) February 18, 2018
“I just try so hard to be successful at everything I do,” Wallace said, “and my family pushes me each and every day, and they might not even know it.”
At this time one year ago, Wallace was unsure how often he would race. After signing on to compete for Richard Petty Motorsports, replacing an injured Aric Almirola in four Cup races, he impressed the organization enough to sign on for a full slate in 2018.
Though Wallace doesn’t have a full season’s worth of primary sponsorship, he brought in a new company for the Daytona 500. Click n’ Close came on board, stepping to sponsor the No. 43 car in multiple races, including this weekend’s season-opener.
Prior to the race, the emotions were already hitting Wallace. Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton sent a tweet to his five million-plus followers, showing signs of encouragement for the rookie driver.
Hey @BubbaWallace! Wishing you the absolute best today in your race. Smash it!! 🙌🏽 🏁
— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) February 18, 2018
Besides Hamilton’s kind words, he even received a call from Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.
“Really cool and really special for Hank Aaron also to call right there before was really special, and just knowing that people are tuning in and hopefully noticing the new face and the new change that’s coming to NASCAR and they get behind it and support it,” Wallace said.
“He just said, hey, good luck, and just have a good race today, and that was it. He knew that we were pressed for time, and it was five seconds, and that’s all he said.”
Wallace started the race in seventh after finishing third in Thursday evening’s first Can-Am Duel 150 qualifying race. He worked his way up to second early in the going, staying there for several laps after Corey LaJoie’s engine expired to cause a caution.
From there, he had to avoid several major wrecks, including a nine-car incident at the end of stage 1.
Wallace fell back to 22nd after coming in too hot during a pit stop during a lap 94 caution. He recovered quickly, though, shooting his way into the seventh spot by the conclusion of the second stage.
“I don’t care about the green/checker as much as the white/checker,” says @BubbaWallace
— Richard Petty Motorsports (@RPMotorsports) February 18, 2018
For the remaining 80 laps in the race, Wallace’s team never fell outside of the top 15. He methodically moved through the pack, restarting sixth in overtime. As he rode around the high lane for two laps, he helped push Dillon’s No. 3 car to the front.
When Aric Almirola crashed entering Turn 3 on the final lap, Wallace was able to focus on what was in front of him: Dillon.
The No. 43 car entered the tri-oval with Denny Hamlin beneath him. When they came across the finish line, the two wrecked. Hamlin failed to secure the runner-up position, giving Wallace and RPM a runner-up result to start the year.
After the race, Wallace had this to say about the incident:
— Tom Bowles From Frontstretch.com (@NASCARBowles) February 18, 2018
“I blew my right front tire out when he came down and side drafted me, so I didn’t have any control of my car because when he came down there, I was just on the yellow line,” Hamlin said, responding to Wallace’s comments. “Nothing I could have done, and it blew my right front tire out with his fender.”
The battle for the No. 43 team is just starting now that Wallace and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer have a top five to get the season going.
“That’s why we always say when we go to Atlanta, that’s when we really see who’s playing what cards,” Wallace said. “Just from everything that’s been going on in the off‑season, switching over to Chevrolet, the alliance with RCR, they were rebuilding their stages there at the end of the year for their program. We’re heading in there like we’re going to win that race. But at the same time, we know we also have a lot of things to check off the list.”