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Inside RPM: Bubba Wallace earns respect from fans, crew

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Dustin Long is spending this week with Richard Petty Motorsports to give fans a behind-the-scenes look at all that takes place before a race. He will be with the team at Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend. Watch for his stories each day through Sunday.

Part 1: Putting together a game plan for Bristol

Part 2: Searching for sponsorship 

BRISTOL, Tenn. — They brought diecast cars, hats, shirts and hero cards to be signed. A man wearing a No. 3 hat and an orange Bristol T-shirt brought a Winston Cup banner covered in signatures. Bubba Wallace became the 279th name to decorate it. A woman gave Wallace, a University of Tennessee fan, an orange Volunteers bracelet and a lanyard. A man just wanted to shake Wallace’s hand.

And then there was Maegann Wright, wearing a Bubba Wallace T-shirt. Among the 300 or so items Wallace signed Thursday afternoon at Bristol Motor Speedway, none was more unusual than what Wright requested. She slipped her left black-and-white checkered shoe off and handed it to the driver of the No. 43 car. He wrote his name next to Ryan Blaney’s fading signature.

“It smells disgusting,’’ Wright said of her shoe. “I felt bad, but I had to have him sign it.”

When the line emptied and the last selfies with fans were taken, Wallace returned to his motorhome to prepare for the weekend. The next race is always the most important for any competitor, but that might be more true for Wallace and Richard Petty Motorsports.

Maegann Wright gets a fist bump from Bubba Wallace after he signed her shoe at Bristol Motor Speedway. (Photo: Dustin Long)

The single-car team continues to search for sponsorship. Businesses operated by team owners Andrew Murstein and Richard Petty will be on the car Saturday night for the fifth time in the last six races because no other company paid to be the primary sponsor. The team seeks a primary sponsor for more than half of the remaining 13 Cup races.

“We know how much it means to have a really good race,” Wallace told NBC Sports.

Bristol could be an equalizer for RPM because aerodynamics and finances don’t mean as much as at bigger tracks. In April, Wallace drove to the front and led six laps before a blistered left-front tire relegated him to a 16th-place finish. The way Wallace drove to the front gave the crew hope this week as they prepared the same car for this race.

Such a run would provide a boost. The team has had one top-15 finish in the last 16 races, an eighth-place result at Texas in April.

The challenge is not new for Wallace. He thinks back to his early struggles in the Truck Series before he won at Martinsville in 2013, and the search for sponsorship that came up empty and forced Roush Fenway Racing to suspend operations of his Xfinity team last season.

(Photo: Dustin Long)

“Each and every step, there has been something to overcome and a hardship to be able to cross,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “I think that just makes you stronger for the next step in your journey. Being here right now and knowing our expectations … learning from those hardships that I’ve come through before, I don’t put so much pressure on myself.

“Yeah, we’re struggling a little bit. But I don’t feel like I’m about to have a mental breakdown over it. It’s like, ‘Why aren’t we winning all these races?’ Well, let’s back up a little bit. We don’t have the money and stuff like that. We have the drive, we have the passion, but that’s not what wins you races. That’s a step to help you win a race, but we’ve got to have a whole package.”

He came close in the Daytona 500, finishing second to Austin Dillon and Richard Childress Racing, an organization Richard Petty Motorsports is aligned with and neighbors to in Welcome, North Carolina.

For as memorable as the finish was, what happened in the media center afterward is a moment that Wallace said he’ll never forget. His mother went to the dais and embraced Wallace, telling him: “I’m so proud of you, baby. I’m so proud of you. You’ve waited so long, baby.”

Wallace responded as they hugged: “You act like we won just won the race.”

“We did! We did! We did win that race. We did.”

Wallace’s mother, Desiree Gillispie-Wallace, has provided her son emotional support through the peaks and valleys of a racing career that started at age 9 and saw a steady progression of a driver some labeled the Tiger Woods of racing.

Along the way, Wallace won in his first K&N Pro Series East start at age 16 and became the first African-American to win a NASCAR national series race in nearly 50 years. At age 20, his victory came at Martinsville, just a few miles from the hometown of Wendell Scott, who became the only African-American to win a Cup race in 1963.

“He’s still hard on himself because he feels like he’s carrying the weight of the African-American culture … kids that look up to him,” Wallace’s mother told NBC Sports. “He wants to make sure he’s doing a good job for everybody.”

Bubba Wallace speaks to the senior class at Virginia High School in Bristol. (Photo: Dustin Long)

During an appearance Thursday for the U.S. Air Force before the senior class at Virginia High School in Bristol, Wallace was asked by a black student about being the only African-American in NASCAR’s top series.

“It’s pretty cool,” Wallace told the assembly. “Wendell Scott … laid down the foundation for us all and broke the barriers and went through all that stuff. For me now, I’m one of the most accepted drivers. In our driver intros, I get huge cheers. For me, it’s about being myself … carrying that to each and every weekend. I think the fans latch on to what is real. That’s what I’m all about. There’s no switching it up when you get on camera. Me talking to you guys today is the same person you’ll see … at the race. I’ve always been like that.

“As far as the African-American side, I don’t really pay much attention to try to accomplish that. I just go out and let the driving speak for itself. You have good days that tends to shine a little bit more, the humbling days is what you need to work on, when things don’t go your way you’ve got to manage the emotion and come out on top.”

He has his team’s support.

“These guys are really sold that Bubba can drive even though I don’t think it’s fair that we haven’t given him a good car lot this year,” said Philippe Lopez, director of competition. “It’s not that we’ve given him a bad car, it’s just where we’re at he’s done a lot with it. Sometimes he’s overachieved.”

Bubba Wallace chats with shock specialist Michael Riggs at the shop earlier in the week. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Wallace also has done other things that mean a lot to the crew. Visits to the shop and spending time with crew means a lot to each.

“Some drivers, they’re like straight-laced, you’ve got to be real serious with them and there’s other drivers like Bubba that you can mess around with,” said interior mechanic David Cropps, whose primary job is to make sure where Wallace sits inside the car is as safe as possible.

One of the things that struck mechanic Jerad Hewitt, who joined the team last month, was what Wallace typically does after most practices. He goes around and thanks the crew for their job.

“It’s nice to have that,” Hewitt said.

It’s something Wallace has done since he was racing in the Xfinity Series.

“The moments that we go through are all as one team, from the start of the weekend to the end, all one team,” Wallace said. “Sometimes I forget (to thank them) and I feel bad about it.

“It’s something that came about, showing the guys that I for sure care about them, they’re the ones that I put the trust in to make sure the car is at its full 110 percent each and every weekend. Showing them the appreciation and giving them the love that they deserve is what it’s all about.”

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Friday 5: Can Kyle Larson break out of his slump at Talladega?

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Two years ago, Kevin Harvick called Kyle Larson “the best driver to come into this sport since Jeff Gordon.”

Harvick remains bullish on Larson even though the 26-year-old enters this weekend on a 55-race winless drought.

Few drivers could have used last weekend’s break more than Larson — he said at Richmond it has been “a pretty crappy start to the year” — but can he turn things around starting at Talladega Superspeedway?

Larson’s struggles were discussed by Kevin Harvick and co-host Matt Yocum on “Happy Hours” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. Yocum asked Harvick how he kept himself mentally up when things aren’t going well.

Harvick responded by raising questions about Larson’s crew chief, Chad Johnston.

“I think when you look at (Larson’s) environment, I look at his crew chief,” Harvick said. “I don’t think he’s the most positive guy in the world. When you have a driver that is in a slump, I don’t think it’s going to come from his crew chief. I think Chad is a pretty low-key guy that kind of complains a fair amount.

“I think as you look at that, I don’t know if it’s going to come from his crew chief. I think it will have to come from (car owner) Chip Ganassi or somebody outside of what they do, crew chief to driver. (Larson is) still really young, so he needs some guidance and he needs some help to get through the situations that he’s in. In the end, when his contract is up, I don’t know exactly when that is, but he’s going to be a hot commodity.”

Johnston has been Larson’s crew chief since 2016. Johnston came to Chip Ganassi Racing after he was Tony Stewart’s crew chief in 2014-15. Those were Harvick’s first two seasons at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Larson has scored all five of his Cup victories with Johnston as his crew chief.

Harvick said on his show of Larson: “The bottom line is Kyle Larson is a very, very talented driver that can win a lot of races with the right people around him and the right guidance from somebody kind of helping him finish races and helping him understand when things are good or if things are bad, if you’re running fifth, you need to finish fifth. Having those people around him would in the right environment, the right chemistry and the right things to go with it are really going to help him along in his career.”

It has been a tough start of the season for Larson, who has not finished better than sixth. He led 142 laps at Atlanta but saw his chances to win fade when he was penalized for speeding. Larson finished 12th that day.

Chevrolet’s struggles also haven’t helped Larson or teammate Kurt Busch. Joe Gibbs Racing has won six races for Toyota, and Team Penske has won three races for Ford this season. They’re the only two organizations to win in the first quarter of the season. Chevrolet teams have combined to win four races in the last 45 races, going back to last year’s Daytona 500.

Ganassi noted this week on Twitter the challenges Chevrolet teams face.

Larson’s task doesn’t get easier this weekend. He has five top-10 finishes in 21 Cup starts at Talladega and Daytona. Larson has never finished better than sixth at either track. After finishing 11th at Talladega in the playoffs last year, Larson lamented: “We just had a terrible race car and were really slow all weekend.”

Will the new package this weekend change Larson’s fortune?

2. What to expect this weekend?

Depends on who you ask? Drivers have different takes on what might happen.

There are many questions because of a few changes. Tapered spacers have replaced restrictor plates. Teams are getting about 100 more horsepower, meaning engines will top 500 horsepower.

To offset that speed gain and slow the cars, NASCAR raised the rear spoiler an inch to 9 inches. NASCAR also is mandating a 1-inch bolt-on track bar mount to change the height from 11 to 12 inches, raising the rear of the car by an inch.

“Handling should not be an issue at all, I’m pretty confident in that,” said Joey Logano, who has won three of the last seven Talladega races, including last spring’s event. “It was (before). You could tell some cars were better than others.

“Now, I think the field will be more equally matched. It’s already the great equalizer, and now we’re equalizing it even more. I would assume the pack will be tighter, cars will be closer, more aggressive moves, probably closer blocks. Maybe the runs happen quicker because the hole in the air is bigger. Maybe the runs on the leader will be bigger.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw a tandem (draft). That can happen. I don’t know if it will or not. You would think with a spoiler that big there is a good chance of that. We’ll see.”

Paul Menard is among those who question how long tandem drafting — which was prominent about a decade ago — can work, if at all.

“The big restriction with tandem racing is cooling,” he said. “Our radiators and things aren’t made, the spec radiators don’t have the cooling we had a few years ago when we did the tandem. I think you will see people get to people’s bumpers and push as long as they can.”

There are other questions as well

“I am wondering how the side draft will work,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won this race in 2017 for his first career Cup victory. “How you can get different runs on cars and ultimately what you can do when you are out front to maintain the lead. That is what our speedway racing has turned into, get to the top five and if you are in the top two of each lane, bottom or top, how do you stay there. I think a lot of people have it figured out now, but now that the package is going to change. Is that still going to be something easy or capable of doing?”

Practice should be interesting today but even that will not provide all the answers. Those will come Sunday.

3. Memorable moment 10 years ago

The end of the April 26, 2009 race at Talladega will remain one that is replayed with one car flying into the fence on the last lap, a new Cup winner being crowned and the driver whose car flipped running across the finish line to complete a race his car couldn’t.

Brad Keselowski celebrated that day, driving for car owner James Finch in a part-time ride that saw Keselowski drive the No. 09 car five times that season. Keselowski was running full time in the Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports and did seven Cup races for Hendrick Motorsports in a fifth car teams were allowed to run with a rookie driver.

Keselowski’s future, though, wasn’t with Hendrick Motorsports. The team didn’t have an opening with its four-car team filled by Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin. That lineup would remain intact through the 2011 season.

In October 2009, Keselowski signed with Team Penske. That came less than a month after Martin inked an extension through the 2011 season with Hendrick Motorsports.

Keselowski’s Talladega victory a decade ago was the first of 29 in Cup for him. Six of those 29 victories have come at the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega. He’s won five times at Talladega and once at Daytona.

How different might things have been for Keselowski had he not won that race at Talladega in 2009?

“I’d like to think that it opened some doors for me,” Keselowski said. “It’s hard to say because none of us have complete control over our destiny, but when I look out the window, I’m not sure I would have ended up at Penske if I hadn’t won that race. 

“It was a major marker. It opened up, in my mind at least, but I can’t speak for Roger (Penske) or Discount Tire. It opened up the window for me to get the Discount Tire deal, which I needed to really feel good about driving for Team Penske because that opened up the Xfinity Series for me, opened up the team development side that I thought was going to be so critical to our success and to kind of get Penske on its feet. 

“If you recall, they were in a bad place at the time, and I don’t know if that would have happened without winning that race. Maybe it would have. I don’t know. It’s a better question for Roger and Discount Tire, but either way, I’m glad it happened. I’m thankful and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”

4. Working together again?

One of the fascinating elements from the Daytona 500 was how Toyota and Hendrick Motorsports worked so well together to offset the dominance of Fords.

NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan revealed the inside story of that deal after the race.

The question is will such a union be needed this weekend to combat the Fords or will the rules help others gets to the front?

Keep an eye on how this plays out this weekend.

5. White House visit 

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced during a briefing Thursday that reigning Cup champion Joey Logano would be honored at the White House next week, continuing a tradition of Cup champions visiting the President.

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Kligerman’s Talladega car to honor Toyota Racing Development’s 40th anniversary

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NBC NASCAR analyst Parker Kligerman will be back behind the wheel at Talladega Superspeedway for this Sunday’s GEICO 500.

Kligerman will be driving the No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota Camry, which will carry a special paint job commemorating the 40th anniversary of Toyota Racing Development.

“We’re proud to honor TRD’s American racing heritage as the organization continues to help build some of the best Toyota engines across all of motorsports,” Kligerman said in a media release. “This paint scheme honors so many great victories over the years.

TRD and Toyota have been involved in all types of racing – from dirt tracks, to the drag strip and pavement ovals – and we can’t wait to see TRD-powered Toyotas in victory lane for years to come.”

Kligerman is looking to improve upon his 15th-place finish in this year’s season-opening Daytona 500.

“It’s a race of attrition, and these super speedways even the playing field,” Kligerman said. “If we can avoid the big crashes, drive a smart race and just be around at the end, our chances are just as good as anyone’s.”

Added TRD president David Wilson, “It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years since TRD first started in American motorsports. We’ve had a rich history in motorsports with over 1,300 TRD-powered victories across 35 series and we look forward to many more.”

Gaunt Brothers Racing team owner Marty Gaunt has had a relationship with TRD that dates back to 2004.

“It’s such an honor to highlight TRD’s 40th anniversary on our Camry,” Gaunt said. “TRD is a leader in technology and innovation – not just in NASCAR but in many different forms of racing. No matter what team, driver or manufacturer you root for, TRD has helped make the racing product better.”

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NASCAR America: What are the top five upset wins at Talladega?

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Of his 76 career NASCAR Cup wins, Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt earned a record 10 victories at Talladega Superspeedway.

Brad Keselowski has the most wins – five – of active drivers at the 2.66-mile facility, NASCAR’s largest racetrack.

On Thursday’s NASCAR America The MotorSports Hour, Krista Voda and analysts Parker Kligerman and AJ Allmendinger recapped the top five upset wins at ‘Dega:

No. 5: 1981 Talladega 500 – Ron Bouchard beats NASCAR Hall of Famers Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte in a wild three-wide finish. Bouchard’s winning margin was 2 feet. He would also go on to win the 1981 NASCAR Winston Cup Rookie of the Year honors.

That was Ron Bouchard’s lone win in the Cup Series,” Voda said.

No. 4: 1988 Winston 500 – Phil Parsons earns the only win of his NASCAR Cup career, defeating runner-up and Hall of Famer Bobby Allison by .21 of a second.

Phil Parsons, stealing a win, in the black Skoal Bandit car, the classic Skoal,” Kligerman said. “The hair’s even better on Phil, it’s a blonde mullet.”

No. 3: 2006 UAW-Ford 500: Brian Vickers took out Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the backstretch on the final lap and wins under caution.

Brian Vickers tries to make a move on his teammate, Jimmie Johnson, and takes out Dale Earnhardt Jr.,” Kligerman said. “How did he make it out of Talladega alive?

No. 2: 2009 Aaron’s 499: Brad Keselowski earns his first career Cup win in one of the most dramatic finishes ever seen at Talladega. Carl Edwards tried to block Keselowski and force him below the yellow line at the bottom of the track. Keselowski wasn’t having any of it, held his ground, made contact with Edwards’ car – sending Edwards into the catch fence – and then held on to defeat Dale Earnhardt Jr. by .175 of a second.

You’re not supposed to go below the yellow line, Brad Keselowski said ‘I’m not going below the yellow line,’” Allmendinger said. “Carl Edwards went up in the grandstands and bounced back. I remember driving by there and said ‘wow, that was big.’”

Added Kligerman, “The reason (Keselowski) didn’t go below the yellow line is a year prior, Regan Smith got the win taken away for going below the yellow line. So (Keselowski) listened to that.”

No. 1: 2013 Aaron’s 499: This race went four laps into overtime before Front Row Motorsports teammates David Ragan and David Gilliland finished 1-2 for the organization’s first-ever Cup win. 

It was a long day,” Kligerman said, “It was basically nighttime (in victory lane) with rain delays and tornado warnings. It was a crazy day but that’s an exhilarating win for that team.”

Ragan comes into Sunday’s race “as a long shot, according to Vegas, 100-to-1 odds. Somebody’s got to take that bet,” Voda said. “David Ragan is a name you always have to pay attention to at Talladega.”

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NASCAR America presents The Motorsports Hour at 5 pm ET

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America presents The MotorSports Hour airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN, with Parker Kligerman, AJ Allmendinger and Krista Voda.

We’ll cover multiple forms of motorsports, including NASCAR, IndyCar, Supercross and more.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.