Inside RPM: Bubba Wallace earns respect from fans, crew

Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
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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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Cup drivers are for changing Texas but leery about making it another Atlanta

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Some Cup drivers are concerned that a reconfigured Texas Motor Speedway could create racing similar to Atlanta, adding another type of superspeedway race to the NASCAR calendar.

While Texas officials have not stated publicly any plans to make changes, some competitors feel Sunday’s playoff race (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network) could be the final event on this track’s current layout. 

With the All-Star Race moving from Texas to North Wilkesboro next year, Texas Motor Speedway’s lone Cup race will take place Sept. 24, 2023. That could provide time for any alterations. Work on changing Atlanta began in July 2021 and was completed by December 2021. 

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson said work needs to be done to Texas Motor Speedway.

“I would like them to demolish this place first and then start over from scratch,” Larson said Saturday. “For one, they did a very poor job with the reconfiguration, initial reconfiguration. 

“I would like to see them change it from a mile-and-a-half to something shorter. I don’t know if that means bringing the backstretch in or whatever. 

“If I could build a track, it’d be probably a three-quarter mile Bristol basically, pavement and progressive banking. But I don’t know if that’s even possible here. I’m not sure what they have in mind, but anything would be better than what they did.”

Former Cup champion Joey Logano worries about another superspeedway race with such events at Daytona, Talladega and now Atlanta. 

“Do we need more superspeedways?” Logano asked Saturday. “Is that the type of racing fans want to see? Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano said he wants to have more control in how he finishes, particularly in a playoff race. 

“I want to be at tracks where I can make a difference, where my team can make a difference, and we’re not at the mercy of a wreck that happened in front of us that we couldn’t do anything about,” he said.

Discussions of changing the track follow complaints about how tough it is to pass at this 1.5-mile speedway.

“Once you get to the top, it’s almost like the bottom (lane) is very, very weak,” Daniel Suarez said.

Suarez has mixed feelings about the idea of turning Texas into another Atlanta-style race.

“Atlanta was a very good racetrack, and then they turned it into a superspeedway and it’s a lot of fun,” Suarez said. “I see it as a hybrid. I don’t think we need another racetrack like that, but it’s not my decision to make. Whatever they throw out at us, I’m going to try to be the best I can be.”

Suarez hopes that Texas can be like what it once was.

“Maybe with some work, we can get this race track to what it used to be, a very wide race track, running the bottom, running the middle, running the top,” he said.  

“As a race car driver, that’s what you want. You want that ability to run around and to show your skills. In superspeedways … everyone is bumping, everyone is pushing, and you can not show your skills as much.”

Chase Briscoe would be OK with a change to Texas, but he wants it to be more like a track other than Atlanta.

“If we’re really going to change and completely start from scratch, I would love another Homestead-type racetrack,” Briscoe said. “The problem is any time you build a new race track, it’s not going to be slick and worn out for a while. It’s trying to figure out what’s best to maximize those first couple of years to get it good by the end. 

“I think Homestead is a great model, if we’re going to build another mile and a half. I think we’re going to have to look at what they have, the progressive banking, the shape of the race track is different. I just think it’s a really good race track, and I think it always puts on really good racing. Anything we could do to try to match that, that would be my vote.”

Denny Hamlin just hopes some sort of change is made to Texas.

“I’d rather have another Atlanta than this, honestly,” Hamlin said. “Anything will be better than kind of what we have here.”

NASCAR shares prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer

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FORT WORTH, Texas — The NASCAR garage is sharing its prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer DJ VanderLey, who was injured Thursday night in a crash during a micro sprint Outlaw race at the Texas Motor Speedway dirt track.

He suffered several fractured vertebrae and has a spinal cord injury, according to a post from his wife Jordan on her Facebook page. 

Two GoFundMe accounts have been set up to help the family with medical costs. 

VanderLey was Chase Briscoe’s engineer for four years, and they are good friends.

“I hate that it happened to anybody,” Briscoe said Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway, “but for it to hit close to home has definitely been tough for me.”

Briscoe said he planned to visit VanderLey in the hospital on Saturday and that “I just hope that everybody continues to pray. That’s really all we can do at this point, trying to hope he gets better.”

Christopher Bell calls VanderLey among his best friends. VanderLey was Bell’s engineer at Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016. 

Bell spent the night at the hospital and also picked up Jordan VanderLey at the airport when she arrived. 

Stewart-Haas Racing had a decal for VanderLey on Riley Herbst‘s No. 98 Xfinity car for Saturday’s race.

Starting lineup for Texas Cup race: Brad Keselowski wins pole

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Brad Keselowski will be at the front of the field to start Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway (3:30 pm ET, USA Network).

Keselowski, who is not a part of the 12-driver playoff group, won the pole Saturday afternoon with a speed of 188.990, edging Joey Logano‘s 188.805.

MORE: Texas Cup starting lineup

The race is the first of three in the second round of the Cup playoffs. Round of 12 races will follow at Talladega Superspeedway Oct. 2 and the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval Oct. 9.

MORE: Waffle House a headquarters for race winners

Also starting in the top five Sunday will be William Byron, Tyler Reddick and Michael McDowell. It is McDowell’s best oval start of the season and his ninth top-10 start of the year.

Brad Keselowski wins Cup pole at Texas Motor Speedway

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Brad Keselowski, hoping to extend Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing’s turnaround, won the pole Saturday for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway.

It was the second piece of good news for RFK Racing in two weeks. Chris Buescher,  Keselowski’s teammate, won last week’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the first victory for the team under the RFK banner.

Keselowski, who ran 188.990 mph, is not a part of the 12-driver playoff group. Nine of the first 14 starting positions were filled by playoff drivers.

MORE: Texas Cup qualifying results

Following in the top five Saturday were Joey Logano, William Byron, Tyler Reddick and Michael McDowell. Playoff point leader Chase Elliott will start sixth.

“Texas is a really tough track,” Keselowski told NBC Sports. “As hot as it’s going to be, that will be even tougher.”

Race-time temperatures are expected to be in the mid-90s Sunday.

The race (3:30 p.m. ET), the first event in the second round of the playoffs, will be televised by the USA Network.