Bubba Wallace delivered a jolt to the sport in his first race as a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver when he earned a second-place finish in the Daytona 500 and subsequently developed a short feud with veteran Denny Hamlin after a last-lap incident. The finish was the best ever for an African-American driver in the Daytona 500, and Wallace became a hot topic in the afterglow of the season opener.
Reality, however, soon poured some cold water on those positive feelings. Without the equalization of NASCAR’s restrictor plate package in play, Wallace’s underfunded No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevy turned in an average finish for the season of 24.5, and he earned just two more top-10 finishes in the remaining 35 races following Daytona.
Those results left him trailing Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron in the battle for the series’ Rookie of the Year award.
As Wallace, 25, begins his second full season in the Cup series, he’s ready for the experience that he’s earned in the car to start paying dividends. It’s a feeling he’s felt every time he’s entered Year 2 in a different NASCAR vehicle, first in the Truck series and then in the Xfinity cars.
In last year’s second-to-last race at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, Wallace turned in an unexpected 10th-place finish. Wallace said it was a race where “no bullsh-- happened, almost,” but it was also indicative of a team that seemed to be finally ticking forward.
Wallace says he was able to see improvement late in the season based on when his car was in danger of getting lapped in the first stage. As the season progressed, Wallace says, the team typically would face going only one lap down in an early stage. “That’s an improvement for us,” Wallace says. “That’s really nice and being able to show up and know, ‘Oh we’re still going to struggle a little bit but struggle less.’”
Over the offseason, Wallace committed to taking full inventory of ways in which he needs to improve to take a step forward in 2019. He’ll pay particular attention to pit road penalties, practice wrecks and in-race incidents he could have avoided. A qualifying crash at Martinsville Speedway last fall stands out.
“It just comes with time,” he says. “I thought I would do a little bit better on that standpoint coming into it just because I had so much experience coming in. But still, it’s a new car. It’s a new atmosphere. You’ve got to push it over the edge a lot.”
Wallace also eyes road courses as a major point of improvement for this year. He planned to visit some driving schools in the offseason to get more experience after failing to finish on the lead lap of all three road course races last year, averaging a finish of 30th.
He’s not sure, however, what impact the 2019 rules package governing engine horsepower and aerodynamic devices at many races will have, either on his team or on the series as a whole.
“I talked to a couple guys about it who tested it at Atlanta and Charlotte. They couldn’t say, ‘No, it’s not going to work,’ or ‘Yeah, it might be okay,’” says Wallace.
“I’m not knocking it. I’m just going to see what it’s like, give it the first couple of races.”
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2019 Cup Championship: 2000/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)