On Jerry Baxter’s first day as crew chief of the famous Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43 car, he called Bubba Wallace into his office.
He had some questions for the driver.
“It almost felt like a principal’s office type visit,” Wallace recalled Tuesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint.” “He was like, ‘Hey man, looking at these notes, some of these races, you guys really didn’t have the best races, just by looking at setup notes … Do you know why we ran this way or why you ran this?'”
The grilling from Baxter made Wallace “excited” for the 2020 Cup season, which is just over four weeks away.
“Because he’s going through, doing everything that he can already, as a crew chief would and should, but just seeing certain things that stick out to him that like ‘Ah, I don’t really know about that,'” Wallace said. “So we can go to some of these places and try new changes, new setups, something that’s totally different, something that’s kind of Jerry Baxter’s style.”
It’s a style Wallace is familiar with and which proved successful for him early in his NASCAR career.
Baxter was Wallace’s crew chief at Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series from 2013-14. They won five races, including four in 2014. Baxter joins RPM after leading Brett Moffitt to four wins in the Truck Series last year at GMS Racing.
Baxter is reunited with the 26-year-old Wallace ahead of Wallace’s third full-time campaign driving the No. 43 Chevrolet.
“I don’t think there’s been a birthday or a holiday that’s gone by where we haven’t communicated with each other or just random times throughout the week,” Wallace said. “I keep my boat at his house. I see him usually about every weekend. Any day we have off throughout the summer … Or he’ll send me a picture right before I climb in the race car and say ‘Hey, thanks for letting me take your boat out.’ It’s good to have that relationship off and away from the race track, then once we get to the race track we know kind of how to work with each other. It’s just a matter of going back to old files and digging up that relationship.”
Together Wallace and Baxter will try improve on a 2019 season where Wallace only had one top-10 finish, a third-place result in the Brickyard 400. That was down from three top 10s in his rookie year. He placed 28th in the standings both years.
But with Baxter’s process at play, Wallace is allowing himself to be positive about his prospects in 2020, which is unusual for him.
“I’m not really the one to carry a lot of optimism,” Wallace said. “I like to keep it real and then be realistic about everything. Going into this year I’ve said it to many people, that I’m very optimistic about this season, I feel good about it. It’s the best I’ve felt about a race season in a long time. It’s going to be fun when we go to Daytona.”
When the Daytona 500 arrives on Feb. 16, it will be Wallace’s 77th Cup Series start and his third start in the “Great American Race.”
But for Baxter, who has been a crew chief in NASCAR off and on since 1986, including 12 Cup races, it will be his first Daytona 500 calling the shots atop a pit box.
Wallace gave Baxter some advice on how to approach the Daytona 500 experience recently over dinner with him and his wife.
“Him and I are kind of the same,” Wallace said. “We both love racing, but we never had dreams of being where we were. It just kind of worked out. We’re here together, we met and crossed paths. God put us in situations to help us work together and grow together.
“I told him, ‘No matter what, when you get down to Daytona … you’ve been on the Truck and Xfinity level for a while, but when you get to Daytona and you get to experience your first Daytona 500, it’s the coolest thing ever … don’t forget to set aside some time for yourself to be able to take in the moment, whether it’s race day, whether it’s the middle of week down there, whatever it is because there’s only one first time Daytona 500.’
“Obviously, mine was pretty remarkable, but I want Jerry to kind of sit back, relax, take it all in and enjoy the show. … If you can, separate yourself from your job for a split second and just kind of put yourself in a third-person perspective and see everything around that’s going on.”