Bubba Wallace is ready to get back on track at Daytona 500 after season of adversity
The NASCAR driver is ready to roll into a new season filled with big changes
Bubba Wallace leaned back in his seat and sighed as he thought about the beginning of his career as a full-time driver in NASCAR’s Cup Series.
The first two seasons were a whirlwind of emotions for Wallace, who had experienced exhilarating highs and devastating lows while balancing the pressures of driving the famed No. 43 car for Richard Petty Motorsports. Outside of that, Wallace had his own battles within. Feelings of defeat came in waves. Although there were positive moments and good races to boost morale in two seasons, there were no wins.
“There were multiple times in the 2018 season where, you know, I was down and I was trying to do everything that I can and it still wasn’t enough,” Wallace said.
Adding to an already-stressful situation, Wallace was dealing with family struggles and a bad breakup with his girlfriend, Amanda Carter (they have since rekindled their relationship). With emotions spiraling, Wallace, who still often managed to turn on his charm for the crowd, made his silent battle with depression public during a media session at Kansas Speedway in May. He would go on to complete the 2019 season with only one top 5 finish and one top 10 finish.
But entering his third season, Wallace, the only full-time African American driver on NASCAR’s highest level, is focused and excited about the changes he and his team are implementing.
For starters, the Richard Petty Motorsports team revealed in January that Wallace would be reunited with his former truck series crew chief and friend Jerry Baxter. The two are hoping to recreate the chemistry they had in the past on a larger scale this season, with the first test coming Sunday with the Daytona 500, which will be Baxter’s first.
“From 2013 to 2014, we worked together and had some success, so it’s going to be fun having him on top of the box for the year,” Wallace said.
During their time together in the truck series, Baxter and Wallace amassed a combined five wins, 14 top 5 finishes, 25 top 10 finishes and three poles during the 2013 and 2014 seasons. When Baxter found out that he’d have the opportunity to team up with Wallace again, Baxter was thrilled.
“We’d been talking for a few months about it before the end of the year and once we decided we were going to do it, it was obviously really exciting,” said Baxter, who has more than 30 years of experience as crew chief.
Richard Petty Motorsports team manager Philippe Lopez is looking forward to seeing improvement this season during Wallace’s races.
“We were fast in a lot of places, but sometimes it took too long to get fast,” Lopez said. “And in these races, the way they run now, you can’t start slow. …
“We just want to see improvement. We know that we’re kind of like the David against a bunch of Goliaths, but we still have to show improvement to ourselves and to that group of cars we run with on the track. So our goal is to be in front of them and start getting into the next pack. And when you do that, you slowly start to work yourself up. Nobody moves in this sport overnight. … As the team manager, I’m just looking forward to seeing how all the puzzle pieces fit together. So far, I like what I’m seeing.”
Wallace said there were costly mistakes that he plans to improve upon going into the new season.
“I think obviously [there were] mistakes on my end, whether that’s speeding on pit road, any penalties that we get hitting the wall, definitely don’t want to do that,” Wallace said. “So there’s a handful of races where I would get a little greedy at times when I didn’t need to and it would cost us. So we’ll definitely try to do better on that forefront and just make sure we make the smartest decisions on the racetrack to propel us for the best finishes that we can get.”
Wallace is also in a better place in his personal life. Since publicly discussing his battle with depression, the support from family, friends and fans have helped Wallace face it head-on. Photography has also served as an outlet for Wallace, whose portfolio ranges from scenic moments captured on vacation to races during his spare time.
Wallace is repairing a relationship with his father, Darrell Wallace Sr., which had been frayed for years. Though Wallace said he isn’t quite sure the relationship with his father will ever go back to how it was before, he’s happy that they have been taking steps to get back on track.
“We’re communicating a lot more, so that’s been good,” Wallace said. “He told me when it was all going down, ‘Time will heal all wounds.’ And so I don’t know what that time clock, how long it is, but there’s still some areas that need to be worked on. But all in all, we’re in a better place than where we were. I think he’s going to be at a couple more races this year, a handful more races this year, so it’ll be good to have him there.”
When it comes to racing, Lopez and Richard Petty Motorsports also serve as a support system for Wallace.
“We reassure him that we’re here for him,” Lopez said. “This is his team. He’s not auditioning every week. This is Richard Petty Motorsports and Bubba Wallace is a driver. There’s a lot to say about giving a driver reassurance about his current situation and that’s really all we can do. Past that, we try to give him all the support we can, not just from the racing side of it, but just from the friendship side.”
Although Wallace, 26, labels himself as a pessimist at times, his team wouldn’t describe him as such.
“It’s nice to be around a personality like Bubba,” Lopez said. “He’s like a roller-coaster. Sometimes the lows get too low, but when things are good and successful, his enthusiasm is just infectious and it jumps to the whole crew just because he can get so positive. He becomes the cheerleader and it’s really cool to witness.”
As for the Daytona 500, Lopez is looking forward to watching Wallace, who he said excels at restrictor plate-racing. Wallace, however, has a more measured outlook.
“I told you I’m not optimistic, but it would be pretty cool to win the 500,” Wallace said. “Our speedway stuff has always been fast. 2018 showed that. 2019, I don’t think we finished a speedway race, which was unfortunate. But I’m really excited about Jerry and his attitude that he’s going to bring to the racetrack and working with him again, along with having new Chevrolet bodies, new cars for our team. That’s going to be nice.
“There’s a lot of moving parts that I’m holding a little bit of optimism about, but at the same time, I’m gonna be like, ‘Well, ain’t one thing changed.’ And that’s just how it is.”