LONG POND, Pa. – Darrell Wallace Jr. was chased by autograph seekers in the Pocono garage Friday, all wanting a memento from the Cup series rookie. The fans with photos and Sharpies all missed Dale Earnhardt Jr. stroll by Wallace on the way to his car.
Wallace tried to treat practice like any other NASCAR rookie and not the guy who on Sunday will become just the eighth black driver to race in the top Cup series. His No. 43 Ford had a yellow stripe on the rear bumper that signified to the field a rookie was at the wheel. He even went straight to the top for some racing advice on how to handle the track with the longest frontstretch in NASCAR, calling seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson for qualifying tips.
The 23-year-old Wallace has been mountain biking with Johnson and no problem asking the winner of 83 career Cup races for some guidance.
“Did you notice my qualifying starts? I’m not the best at this,” Johnson laughed, recalling the conversation.
Wallace has tried to fit in as best he could like any other driver making his debut in the middle of the NASCAR season. Johnson doled out advice. Retired four-time champion Jeff Gordon texted his congratulations, then gushed about Wallace on TV.
“I just think this is an incredible moment for our sport and this young man,” Gordon said on the broadcast.
Wallace’s laps during NASCAR’s first practice session were amplified because of the little slice of history he made at Pocono Raceway. Wallace, the son of a white father and black mother, seemed at ease on the track and off – handling fans, the car and the media with the confidence of a veteran.
Wallace, more commonly referred to by his nickname “Bubba,” understands his arrival marks a diversity milestone for NASCAR.
“I pay attention to it, but I don’t label that on myself as we’re out there. `Oh, African-American just passed this guy for the first time in 12 days,“’ he said, smiling. “It’s just way too much. That will probably be an article coming up soon from somebody in here.”
He sparked headlines this week when he was tabbed to fill the open spot in the 43. Wallace got his shot when Aric Almirola was injured in a fiery wreck at Kansas and is still recovering. Wallace, who raced in the Xfinity Series for Jack Roush, has the ride until Almirola returns.
Team owner Richard Petty, who drove the 43, counseled Wallace in the garage and said it was a series of events that put him in the seat.
“Circumstances,” Petty said. “We had to make it work with us, with Ford, with (sponsor) Smithfield. Everyone had to be involved. Everybody agreed to agree.”
And they agreed Wallace was the right choice.
“We haven’t talked about nerves,” Johnson said. “I keep telling him to have fun because I assume there are nerves.”
The 2 1/2-mile, tri-oval track could cause some worry for a debut. NASCAR only held one practice session on both Friday and Saturday.
Wallace advanced out of the first round and will start 16th in his Cup debut.
“It’s my first time qualifying at one of these things and I messed up a lot,” he said.
Wallace faced an uncertain future with sponsorship woes hitting his second-tier Xfinity Series team owned by Jack Roush. Wallace has five years of experience in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series, and has five wins and 20 top-five finishes.
“There was a lot of sleepless nights. You can ask my girlfriend,” Wallace said. “I was pretty stressed out for a couple days leading up to this. When you’re a young guy … it’s pretty stressful now that I understand the business and life itself. It’s pretty devastating not knowing what’s next.”
Almirola fractured a vertebra and is out indefinitely, leaving the seat open for Wallace.
NASCAR says Wallace will join at least seven other black drivers in its 69-year history who reached the Cup level: Elias Bowie, Charlie Scott, Wendell Scott, George Wiltshire, Randy Bethea, Willy T. Ribbs and Bill Lester. Scott is the only one to win a Cup race, on Dec. 1, 1963, and the next win at a NASCAR national event by a black driver came in 2013 when Wallace took the Truck Series checkered flag at Martinsville.
“This is huge for the sport. From the African-American side of this it’s huge,” he said. “If you know me, I’ve been in this sport for a little bit and I usually let the results speak for itself, but I think today and this weekend and really leading up all this week it’s been about this historical side from the African-American side. It’s big and it’s got to be talked about and I understand that.”
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