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Bubba Breaks Barriers with Strong Performance for 'The King' in Daytona Duels

Darrell “Bubba” Wallace is making history and headlines as the first African-American driver to run full-time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series since Wendell Scott in the 1960s and 1970s.

But to his fellow drivers in the Cup Series, Wallace is just another fierce competitor who has all the ingredients to win races in NASCAR’s top division. And to drivers such as Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, he’s one of his closest friends.

Wallace’s rookie season in Cup begins with Sunday’s 60th Daytona 500.

For the first time since the advent of NASCAR’s playoff system, the 26-race regular season will conclude at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the famed Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard. Traditionally, the Brickyard has been held in the hot, humid, sweltering days of late July or early August, but this year the race will take place Sunday, Sept. 9.

The Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard will be the final time drivers can advance into the 16-driver NASCAR Playoffs. The “Road to the Brickyard” officially begins at 2:30 p.m. (ET) Sunday with the Daytona 500. Wallace hopes to play a starring role.

Times have changed dramatically since the days when Scott endured discrimination, and the focus will be on Wallace’s ability to drive a race car for the biggest name in NASCAR history, Richard “The King” Petty, when he fires up the ending in the No. 43 Camaro Sunday. Still, Wallace’s presence in the starting field and Cup Series will bear social significance in the sport.

Wallace proved his racing ability in Thursday night’s first Can-Am Duel at Daytona when he helped push his “BFF” Ryan Blaney to victory. Wallace not only helped his friend win the race, he also secured a third-place finish for Richard Petty Motorsports.

“I had a bodyguard walk me from the car to here,” Wallace said after the race Thursday night. “His name was Richard Petty. I have never seen him that excited before. That was the coolest thing. Him coming up, gave me a huge hug. His sunglasses were off, so I got to see how much he was truly excited about that.

“That is probably the highlight of the night, better than finishing third. Just seeing how pumped he was, the words he said that were definitely words of encouragement.”

Petty is the most popular figure in NASCAR history. He’s about to experience a new wave of popularity as millennials of all ethnic groups are attracted to Wallace driving the famed No. 43.

For the man who was synonymous with Chrysler products, then Pontiac in the latter days of his career, Richard Petty Motorsports was a Ford operation until it made the switch to Chevrolet for 2018.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” Petty said. “We're working a whole lot with Chevrolet, working with RCR (Richard Childress Racing). It’s sort of a new chapter in Richard Petty Motorsports' book.

“We got a new shop, we got a new car, we got a new driver. We had a pretty good night last night. I was very appreciative of how everything went for us last night. Everything was brand new to us.

“We're looking forward to the rest of the year, like everybody else. From our standpoint, it was almost like winning. Really, we did win because it's a brand new team. Chevrolet has been really behind us to try to get us up to speed on how they run their operations and stuff. So far, it's been good. We're looking forward to bigger and better things.”

With a new manufacturer and a new driver, Petty’s outlook is enthusiastic and has made the 80-year-old feel young again.

Wallace proved Thursday night he belongs in a Cup car. What was surprising is at the end of the race, Wallace teamed up with Team Penske’s Blaney, leaving another Team Penske contender, Joey Logano, in the wrong lane heading to the checkered flag.

“We lost control of the restart,” Logano said. “Then the two best friends there ever was being sitting next to each other. I apparently don't have any friends.”

Wallace, seated beside Logano, interjected: “I've seen you race before. You're not anybody's friend. He's my little brother, I had to.

“That's who was there. I would expect the same from Joey. If I was leading, he was third, I would expect the same amount of shot to do that. I'm not going to not shove anybody just because who they are.

“My plan was to push him out there, get clear of the 22 (Logano) and have somewhat of a run. The 22 did a good enough job of stalling me out. I finally got clear, got back around me.

“No matter who it is, if I'm third, I'm going to push you all I can.”

Logano admitted he was impressed with the way Wallace handled the end of the race.

“I was kind of a Lone Ranger trying to get the 31 (Ryan Newman) to pull up to me,” Logano said. “Darrell did a great job pushing Blaney. As soon as they went, they were hooked … going.”

The strong performance in the Duel has boosted Wallace’s confidence heading into the Daytona 500.

“For me, I think younger me, I would be bouncing off the walls, just being ready to climb in for the 500, not thinking, ‘OK, we have a lot more practice to go, then we have to get through 500 miles of it,’” Wallace said.

“Right now, I'm just like: ‘Great, got through tonight. Didn't get in any wrecks, didn't make any dumb moves. Hopefully earned some respect from the veterans out there.’

“It's a big reset button on Sunday. I still a lot of work left to be done before we climb in. Just so proud of my guys, what they brought to the racetrack, what they're bringing as far as attitude wise to the racetrack. 

“It sure as hell is fun to be around.”

There are a lot of eyes on Wallace, but he hasn’t felt the pressure. He has already earned the acceptance of NASCAR and its competitors and hopes to gain more fans along the way.

“He did a good job all night and I was watching the whole time,” Blaney said of Wallace’s performance on Thursday night. “He did a good job of picking which lane to go with when. Not having much experience in these cars, the speedways, it's hard to choose which lane to go with when. I thought he did a really good job.”

For now, Wallace is enjoying the ride of a lifetime.

“I couldn't be more thankful to Richard Petty, The King, for allowing me to step behind the wheel of the No. 43 and let me pile in it all year and let me showcase everything,” Wallace said. “To be here now and say that I'll be running full time as a rookie in my first Cup season is pretty damned cool.

“Richard Petty told me before climbing in: ‘No need to be a hero.  No need to overstep anything that you're doing.’ I'm here for a reason, and I'm here because I've proved my point, so just go out there and do what we need to do.”

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Bubba Breaks Barriers with Strong Performance for 'The King' in Daytona Duels
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