Despite all his names and descriptors, NASCAR Xfinity rookie Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. does not suffer from an identity crisis.
You can call him by his given name or the nickname coined by his older sister. You can describe him as black or white.
Use whatever your preference, but don’t leave out the most important part of his being.
Race car driver.
That’s who Bubba Wallace is. He just also happens to be an African-American, the new face of NASCAR whose future achievements will be synonymous with groundbreaking simply because of his race.
That’s all fine with Wallace, but the most important secondary title to him is winner. The 21-year-old first-timer on the second tier of NASCAR’s stock car series will be vying for his first visit to Victory Lane on this level in Roush Fenway’s No. 6 Ford Mustang in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Texas Motor Speedway.
Wallace is what analysts also call an up-and-comer, one with a confident, dynamic demeanor and a sense of humor. He’s a graduate of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, but it’s obvious he learned more there than how to merely break into a sport with a reputation for being a white man’s game.
Among the regulars on the NASCAR Camping World Trucks Series, the North Carolina native scored a series-high four victories, nine top-five finishes and 14 top 10s in 2014 for Kyle Busch Motorsports under the umbrella of Joe Gibbs Racing. He finished third in the series behind back-to-back champion Matt Crafton.
By winning a trucks race at Martinsville in 2013, Wallace became the first black driver to win a NASCAR national touring series race since Wendell Scott in 1963.
“I’ve been doing that for a while now,” Wallace said of dealing with the “new face” identity. “It’s become second nature. You just have to go out there and let the action speak for itself. You win races and it’s like ‘cool, we just won a race.’ Then like at Martinsville two years ago they told me, ‘Well you were the first in 50 years.’
“I didn’t know the history of it. That’s how I like to go about it. Just do what we need to do on the track and hopefully everything settles in after that.”
Wallace enters this week fifth in the Xfinity series standings after five races with one top 10, seventh at the Boyd Gaming 300. He was three spots ahead of Daniel Suarez, another graduate of the Drive for Diversity, NASCAR’s program designed to attract more minorities and women to the sport as drivers, crews and owners.
As a trucks driver, Wallace was only the fourth African-American to start a race in a NASCAR national series. “It’s cool to have that opportunity to be an ambassador of diversity … carrying a torch that has been passed down to us,” he said.
“You know, the door is wide open,” TMS president Eddie Gossage said. “You’ve got to come in here and prove you can hit major league pitching; you don’t get to just start at this level.
“It’s incumbent upon everybody to make sure that Saturday night short tracks all around the country are open and accessible and welcome for people of all types to participate because that’s where it all starts.”
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In his last race at Auto Club Speedway on March 21, Wallace, who said he and his team have struggled all season finding speed, believed he had a car swift enough to compete with eventual winner Kevin Harvick. In fact, he did, rising to second at one point before his “rookie mistakes” sent him to 12th.
This isn’t Wallace’s first taste of the Xfinity. At Joe Gibbs, he had six races at this level, including one last year, and he finished in the top 10 in three of those.
His growth at Gibbs became stunted, though, because of the business end. Sponsorship money reportedly was available for fewer than half of the circuit’s 33 races.
Though securing sponsorship is “a struggle for everybody,” Wallace said last week he expects to run a full schedule this year at Roush Fenway.
And he believes he can be the circuit’s top rookie while also competing for the championship. At TMS’ media day last week, he spoke of a top-15 finish with a disdain as if he had stumbled on a bed of cockroaches. “I don’t think we’ll have another one,” he said in closing.
The trucks, he said, aren’t much different from the cars of Xfinity. His biggest adjustment has been getting to know his new team.
It’s all a process; with learning comes experience and consistency, Wallace said.
“The biggest thing is me just being patient. I’ve learned a lot,” Wallace said. “The first year of trucks was really a struggle for me. I set so many goals it was ridiculous. I had so much pressure just on myself.”
Staff writer Drew Davison contributed to this report.
Darrell Wallace has one top-10 finish in five Xfinity starts after taking third in the truck series a year ago. A look at his 2014 season: