DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Darrell Wallace Jr. was overcome with emotion when he was greeted by his mom following his second-place finish in the Daytona 500.
Wallace was jovial over the finish, the best for a black driver in Daytona 500 history. When his mother Desiree walked into the media center, the two embraced and Wallace broke down in tears over his mother’s emotion and the support he’s had from his family over the past two seasons.
“It’s a sensitive subject, but I’m just so emotional over where my family has been the last two years, and I don’t talk about it, but it’s just so hard, and so having them here to support me is ‑‑ pull it together, bud, pull it together,” Wallace said talking out loud to himself as he held back tears. “You just finished second. It’s awesome.”
“I just try so hard to be successful at everything I do, and my family pushes me each and every day, and they might not even know it, but I just want to make them proud. Second is horrible, but it’s still a good day.”
Wallace has been the only full-time black driver in NASCAR’s top three series since he got a ride in the Truck Series in 2013. He became the first black driver since Wendell Scott to win a NASCAR national series race when he won at Martinsville that season as a 19-year-old.
Since then, his road to NASCAR success hasn’t been that straightforward. He won four races in 2014 and moved to Roush Fenway Racing in the Xfinity Series in 2015. After two winless season’s on NASCAR’s No. 2 circuit, Wallace’s No. 6 team shuttered its doors 13 races into the 2017 because of a lack of sponsorship.
That helped lead to a four-race substitute stint in the No. 43 car in the Cup Series after Aric Almirola suffered a broken back. But that was it after Almirola was healthy to return. Save for a truck race (which he won), Wallace was on the sidelines, hoping for his shot in the Cup Series.
He got it when Almirola left for Stewart-Haas Racing at the end of the 2017 season and Richard Petty Motorsports was in need of a driver.
Entering Sunday, Wallace was fast. He finished third in his qualifying race and had the fastest speed in Saturday’s final practice. He wasn’t a favorite to win, but he grabbed the attention of two greats: Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton and Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.
Hamilton followed Wallace on Twitter Sunday morning and then sent him a note of support.
“[Hamilton’s] just a genuine badass in what he does, so that was cool, and then he sent out a tweet, and I got weak at the knees,” Wallace said. “Luckily I was sitting down when I was replying to him. I think I was taking a golf cart ride out to an appearance and I replied back. 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.”
Sponsorship is still an issue, as it somehow has been for much of Wallace’s career. The team’s Sunday sponsor, Click n’Close, only signed on for a handful of races. But Petty is committed to Wallace, and so is NASCAR. He’s one of the 25-and-under drivers the sport is counting on heavily to build long-term fanbases.
With more performances like he had on Sunday, finding fans and sponsors should get a little easier.
“But just the team we have behind us right now is so much fun, and knowing that we’re a smaller budget team, we have a lot of poise and a lot of attitude and just a lot of stuff to fight for this year,” Wallace said. “I’m really looking forward to Atlanta. Don’t know what the hell we’ll have there because it’s all new for us.”
“I know this will carry over to Atlanta and be good.”
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