Darrell Wallace Jr.: Time in No. 43 car has been ‘best month of my life’ (VIDEO)

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At one point in during Saturday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway, Darrell Wallace Jr. let his team know he was having fun.

“If this is my last one, it’s been a kick-ass time,” Wallace said over the radio.

With Richard Petty Motorsports scheduled to give an update on the condition of injured driver Aric Almirola on Wednesday, it’s possible Wallace made his final start in the team’s No. 43 Ford Saturday night.

It was his fourth race relieving Almirola, who suffered a T5 compression fracture in his back in a violent crash at Kansas Speedway on May 13.

If it was Wallace’s last start, he made it count. Though he was one-lap down, the 23-year-old driver posted his career-best finish of 11th. He placed ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick.

It bested Almirola’s best finish of 12th in five Kentucky starts.

Wallace took to Twitter Sunday morning, stating the last month had been the “best month of my life.”

Wallace’s first start in the No. 43 coincided with his potential last start of the year in the Xfinity Series. With no sponsorship backing in place, Wallace made his last scheduled start for Roush Fenway Racing in the No. 6 Ford at Pocono Raceway. The next day he became the first African-American driver to start in the Cup series in a decade.

He finished 26th after multiple speeding penalties. The next week at Michigan he placed 19th. After Billy Johnson drove the car at Sonoma, Wallace returned to the cockpit at Daytona, where he finished 15th. Late in the race, he briefly contended for the lead with Ryan Blaney, his friend who drives the No. 21 Ford for Wood Brothers Racing.

“We kept improving, each and every time on the race track, each and every race,” Wallace said Saturday after the Kentucky race. “We kept improving, I kept improving. I am getting more and more comfortable with these cars. It was a good run for our Smithfield Ford. We had a lot of fun tonight. … We fell back on that one restart. We were able to manage and maintain and work out some track position on that green-flag stop, and we were 14th and fired off right around there for the last restart and was able to hang on. It was a good day. I am having a great time in the Monster Energy Cup Series. Hopefully, there will be more.”

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Staff picks for today’s Cup race at Indianapolis

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win today’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Nate Ryan

Kyle Larson. Only one winner in Brickyard 400 (Jeff Gordon, 27th in 2001) has started in a lower position — but if anyone can rebound after qualifying 25th on a track that’s difficult for passing, it’s the Chip Ganassi Racing driver this season.

Dustin Long

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Even before Daytona earlier this month I had this vision of Earnhardt scoring his win to make the playoffs at this track. We’ll see if I can see the future.

Daniel McFadin

Jamie McMurray reminds everyone what he’s capable of by earning his second victory in the Brickyard 400.

Jerry Bonkowski

Sentimentally, I’d like to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. win this one. But from a realistic standpoint, I’m going with Kevin Harvick to earn his second career Brickyard win.

With Matt Kenseth available, Hendrick Motorsports already was set on Alex Bowman long ago

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INDIANAPOLIS – Hendrick Motorsports announced Alex Bowman as the driver of its No. 88 Chevrolet last week, but the choice effectively was made long ago.

“We had Alex in the back of mind for whatever opportunity we had,” team owner Rick Hendrick said during a news conference Sunday morning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “It wasn’t much of a decision at all. Alex was the guy.”

Hendrick confirmed Bowman signed a multiyear contract last October that runs through 2019 and hardly considered any other options – including impending free agent — Matt Kenseth to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“We were very, very careful not to guarantee (Bowman) anything other than if opportunities arose, he would have a shot,” Hendrick said. “I can’t make all the decisions. The sponsors have to be involved. But in my mind, Alex was going to get the next (ride).”

When Kenseth revealed two weeks ago that he wouldn’t be returning to Joe Gibbs Racing, Earnhardt was confident his friend would find a ride for 2018.

But with Hendrick having solidified its lineup for next season with Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott, Bowman and perhaps Kasey Kahne (Hendrick plans to run four Chevrolets next year but left open the possibility that William Byron could drive the No. 5 – “we’re not ready to cross that bridge yet.”), the options for Kenseth remaining in Cup seem limited.

“I love Matt Kenseth,” Hendrick said. “He is a tremendous talent. He and I have actually talked about this in the past. Sometimes things just don’t line up at the right time.”

Everything has seemed to line up well for Bowman, who drove the No. 88 in 10 races last year while Earnhardt recovered from a concussion. He also has tested for the team in its driving simulator and wheelforce transducer car (which gathers critical setup data).

“A lot of guys have the talent, they just need that one critical break, if they stay committed and keep pushing, eventually that opportunity might come along,” Earnhardt said. “(Bowman) gets that opportunity because of his commitment to his career and the gamble on himself he made a long time ago.

“He works hard and has been a key investment for Chevrolet, incredibly helpful for the company and race team. It’s very tedious work. He’s been a team player knowing if he put forth this effort, he possibly could get this opportunity.”

Hendrick said he knew little about Bowman before Earnhardt personally vouched for him. Bowman validated the recommendation by winning the pole at Phoenix International Raceway last November and leading 194 laps.

“The word for Alex is he deserved it,” Hendrick said. “He deserves a shot. He stepped into the most pressure point. I don’t think there’d be a situation on pit road of having the pressure of sitting in Dale Earnhardt’s car and to perform like he did and then the contributions he’s made to our company to help our guys.”

Rick Hendrick: ‘The plan is to run 4 cars’ next year

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INDIANAPOLIS – Car owner Rick Hendrick says “the plan” is to run four Cup cars next year even as questions have been raised about the company cutting back to three cars.

Questions have been raised with because the need of sponsorship for the No. 5 team next season. Both Great Clips and Farmer’s Bank Insurance are not returning after this season. Those companies are scheduled to sponsor the car in 22 races this year.

Hendrick said Sunday that “the plan is to run four cars” next year.

The comment was well-received. Jim Campbell, who oversees Chevrolet’s motorsports program, liked a tweet that had Hendrick’s comment about remaining four cars.

Hendrick also was asked Sunday about the status of the No. 5 car driven by Kasey Kahne but said only “that’s for another day” during a press conference with Alex Bowman, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Nationwide’s Jim McCoy.

Kahne has a contract through next season yet questions have been raised if he’ll be back. If not, an option could be for William Byron, who won Saturday’s Xfintiy race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, to move from JR Motorsports into that spot. The 19-year-old Byron, a rookie in the Xfinity Series, has won three of the last five races.

Asked about Byron moving into a Cup car next year, Hendrick said: “We’re not ready to cross that bridge yet.”

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Jimmie Johnson to start in the rear after gear change

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INDIANAPOLIS – Jimmie Johnson‘s bid for a record-tying fifth Brickyard 400 will have to begin at the back of the 40-car field.

Johnson qualified fourth Saturday but stated on Twitter that he’ll have to go to the rear of the field because they had to change the rear gear.

Although track position is pivotal at Indianapolis Motor Speedway because passing is difficult, optimists can view Johnson’s woes as a good sign. He has scored two of his three wins this season – Texas and Dover – after starting in the rear.

Also starting at the rear today is Cole Whitt (rear gear change) and Joey Gase (engine change). Whitt qualified 34th. Gase qualified 38th.

Today’s race is on NBC. Coverage begins at 2 p.m. ET with Countdown to Green.

 

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