A year ago, Bubba Wallace came to Michigan International Speedway to compete in a truck series race not knowing where his career would lead.
He knew Richard Petty Motorsports was pleased with his efforts in the four races he had done for them earlier in the summer but had no idea whether that would turn into a full-time ride in 2018.
So he came to Michigan to have some fun and show people he could still get the job done. And he did that in winning the truck race while driving for MDM Motorsports.
Wallace, reflecting on the past year, said he could not have predicted in the euphoria of that win that he would be a full-time NASCAR Cup series driver with a deal through 2020.
“I’d be like, ‘Yeah, no — no way,'” Wallace said. “It’s kind of a surreal moment, still. I’m enjoying it and taking it all in. Struggling or not, it’s been fun.”
It has been quite a year for Wallace, who last season saw his Xfinity Series ride at Roush Fenway Racing end up being over by the summer because of a lack of sponsorship. He thought his career might be over, but RPM announced in October he would get to drive the No. 43 Cup car in 2018.
“He was kind of down at this time last year,” good friend and fellow Cup driver Ryan Blaney said. “The Xfinity ride deal fizzled up and then he got the opportunity to drive the 43 car. … That truck win really boosted his confidence.
“That ride didn’t fizzle out with the 6 car [at Roush Fenway] because of him. It was other things in the way. He can run with the best of them.”
Wallace has shown that at times this season, opening with a second-place finish in the Daytona 500. But Wallace hasn’t had the most upbeat of seasons: He has posted one other top-10 finish — an eighth at Texas — and six other top-20 finishes. He has finished outside the top-20 in 14 races, including six of his past seven starts.
“Coming into this season we didn’t know where we were going to stack up at first, so we said eighth to 12th was our range,” Wallace said. “And I thought, ‘that’s good,’ especially coming off last year and how we ran.
“And then when we started getting into the races and we weren’t really finding ourselves barely inside the top 20, so it’s like, ‘OK, we readjust.’ Once that started becoming unfortunately the norm, it’s like … we’re going to fight for top-20s, and those are going to be really good days for us.”
Despite the struggles, his performance was good enough that Richard Petty picked up the two-year option in his contract a month ago. The team liked the way Wallace has worked with the crew amid an offseason switch in manufacturers (from Ford to Chevy) and a move in the shop to a place on the Richard Childress Racing campus.
Wallace, the first African-American to compete regularly in the Cup series since 1971, now knows he has time to develop.
“A lot of these racetracks he’s never been to,” Petty said. “The car was new to him. He’s new to the crew. So everybody had to learn everybody.
“And so it’s taken a little bit longer, basically, than what we wanted to do, but as we go along we get to be more of a family. The closer we are, the better we’re going to be. That’s the ultimate goal.”
Wallace said not competing for wins on a regular basis certainly adds to the intensity when a driver has a good car.
“Those days when you do click and find something, you have extra fuel to add to the fire from those tough days to go out and really get the job done,” Wallace said. “So it’s not a matter of us dwelling on not winning, it’s just a matter of us trying to find something that makes our cars much more competitive. That’s a win for us right now.”
It’s not a real win, though — not like the one he had in that truck a year ago. Wallace had gone more than two years without winning, as his previous victory came in the 2014 truck finale at Homestead.
“It was kind of like a refresher like, ‘OK, you can still get into Victory Lane,'” Wallace said. “So, that’s good. I guess you have a little bit more confidence when you go back to Michigan, or even when you climb back into the trucks, but it was a race that there was nothing on the line for us.
“We went out and didn’t give two craps about anybody out there. We wanted to go out and get a win. And, so that’s what happened. And so it’s like, ‘All right, cool. Mission accomplished.'”
While that win helped his confidence, Blaney said Wallace is the type of driver who always has believed in himself.
“His confidence is really high … he’s a confident human being,” Blaney said. “That’s what makes him very special. That’s the way you need to be in this sport.”
That doesn’t mean that Wallace thinks he’s going to win his next Cup race. It means he has confidence he can eventually put things together.
“We’re going to go through the struggles that none of us obviously thought we would be so far behind the 8-ball,” Wallace said. “But what’s cool to see is that we show up to the shop each and every week, and show up at the racetrack every week, and our guys are still digging hard, 100 percent, a 110 percent effort, trying to find something.
“And each weekend … we think we’ve got something really good for this weekend. Hopefully it translates into something. Sometimes it doesn’t, but at least we’re trying things and we’re not just sitting there with our heads in our laps.”