Smiles have been few and far between lately for NASCAR driver Darrell Wallace, Jr.
With a season-best finish of 17th and only one Top-10 showing in his last 41 starts, the Alabama native has recently had to contend with rumors that his Richard Petty Motorsports team might fold in the near future, after being unable to attract badly needed sponsorship.
Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the smile returned to Bubba’s face.
Wallace and his underdog RPM team contended strongly for the win the opening stage of Saturday’s Monster Energy Open, only to lose a fender-banging sprint to the finish by inches to William Byron.
After a few R-rated exclamations on his in-car radio, Wallace bounced back in Stage Two of the Open, nipping Daniel Suarez on the final lap in a virtually carbon-copy finish, banging wheels as Suarez spun, giving Wallace a starting spot in his first-ever All-Star Race and unleashing a torrent of cheers from the Charlotte grandstands that rivaled anything heard for the remainder of the evening.
“Ever since I was a kid, they said I drive better when I’m pissed off,” said Wallace, in the midst of an emotional, teary embrace with fellow driver and best friend Ryan Blaney. “I was pissed off. I thought that was it (for our chances). Then the caution came out (in the second stage) and gave us the same scenario.
|Wallace made his All-Star debut memorable.|
“I thought, ‘I’m not giving it up this time.’ You’ve got to do what you’ve got do.”
Simply qualifying for the All-Star Race would have been enough to boost the morale at RPM. But Wallace was far from finished.
He ran toward the back of the 19-car main event in the opening two stages, but surged forward in the penultimate third segment, finishing sixth. A pit stop dropped him outside the Top-10 for the start of the final 15-lap stage, but Wallace wasted little time moving forward once the green flag flew.
He cracked the Top-10 almost immediately, then gained a handful of positions by remaining on-track while others pitted with just 12 laps remaining. He climbed as high as fourth following the final restart, but was overtaken by Joey Logano with just four laps to go.
A spirited battle with former RPM driver Aric Almirola saw Wallace take the checkered flag in fifth place; an astounding performance for a driver and team who have been hanging on by their figurative fingernails in recent weeks.
“I honestly haven’t had this much fun in a long time,” said an emotional Wallace afterward.
He acknowledged that competitive and personal challenges have made life difficult recently. But on this night, at least, the smiles were easy to come by.
“I had tons of fun tonight,” he said. “I honestly haven’t had this much fun in a long time. I guess since back to the race at Bristol last spring. It’s been a struggle for us. I held it wide open on the last restart and those (top four) guys drove away from me. I just said ‘Bye, bye’ and held on for fifth.
“The first thing my mom said to me after the Open was ‘You know who that was? That was God. He’s not giving up on you yet.’
“As many dark moments that I’ve had and telling myself to give up, it’s been really tough. It’s been tough to keep coming in and keep going. Tonight just
shows that I’ll be back next week.
“I’m showing teeth in my smile,” Wallace said. “So that says a lot.”