Darrell Wallace Jr. was already having difficulty gathering his emotions after finishing second in the Daytona 500 Sunday at Daytona International Speedway. Then, his mom interrupted his post-race press conference and there was no more holding back.
The two shared a long embrace, with Desiree Wallace repeatedly telling her son how proud she was. “Mom, we finished second, we didn’t win,” Darrell Wallace Jr. said.
“We did. Yes we did. We did win that race, baby,” Desiree responded.
An emotional Darrell Wallace Jr. hugs his mom after finishing second in the Daytona 500. pic.twitter.com/SjUthBaq0U— Jordan Bianchi (@Jordan_Bianchi) February 19, 2018
Then after an exchange of I love you’s and a hug with his older sister, the 24-year-old driver for Richard Petty Motorsports tried to put into words what it meant to finish second in NASCAR’s biggest race following a year where his place within the sport was uncertain because he lacked sponsorship. And it was at this point the tears really started to flow as he attempted to explain the meaning.
“It’s a sensitive subject, but I’m just so emotional over where my family has been the last two years and I don’t talk about it,” Wallace said. “But it’s just so hard, and so having them here to support me is … pull it together, bud. Pull it together. You just finished second. It’s awesome.
“I just try so hard to be successful at everything I do, and my family pushes me each and every day. And they might not even know it, but I just want to make them proud. Second is horrible, but it’s still a good day. But yeah, I just love my family and having everybody here from my mom, my sister, my uncle, everybody here just means a lot.”
Wallace is the first full-time African-American driver to compete in the Cup Series, NASCAR’s top division, since 1971. The fact that the son of a white father and black mother is trying to make a name for himself in a sport where the Confederate flag can still be seen in the infield at many races is something Wallace does not hide from. He is proud of who he is and sees himself as someone capable of being the next face of NASCAR, even if that may make some uncomfortable.
But people are taking notice. Wallace’s popularity has grown thanks to his charismatic, fun-loving personality that includes his bromance with Ryan Blaney, another of NASCAR’s rising stars, where the two frequently engage in hijinks they showcase on social media. And Wallace is the subject of a Facebook Watch docu-series that tracked his debut in the Daytona 500.
Before the race Lewis Hamilton, the four-time Formula One world champion, tweeted his support of Wallace, and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer and one-time homerun king Hank Aaron spoke with Wallace on the phone. Both Hamilton and Aaron broke barriers in their respective sports, and they see Wallace doing the same in his.
“Knowing that people are tuning in and hopefully noticing the new face and the new change that’s coming to NASCAR and they get behind it and support it -- just exciting,” Wallace said.
That enthusiasm is apparently so contagious it makes an 80-year-old feel youthful. As evident when following the Daytona 500, team owner Richard Petty walked down pit road and through the garage in search of his driver who had just finished second.
Wallace had a run-in with Denny Hamlin on the post-race cool-down lap that had sent the No. 43 car into the wall and necessitated a tow back to the garage. The skirmish meant Wallace had to visit the infield care center, prompting Petty to take his spirited march. It was the most exercise the octogenarian, who won seven Cup championships and is considered NASCAR royalty, had gotten in some time.
“You got that! Damn right.” Petty said.
So intently focused was Petty, wearing his trademark cowboy hat and sunglasses, on seeking out Wallace that the normally affable man with a well-deserved reputation for never turning down an autograph request did just that. Three different times. All because nothing was going to slow him down — not right now,” Petty said. He barely even acknowledged the loud cheers fans bestowed on him from a grandstand section above the garage.
“If we could have won the race, it would have been better, but second is the best thing besides winning,” Petty said. “He was in the race all day long — that made us feel good. Wasn’t a deal running 15th and lucked up and run there.
“Overall, it was good.”
Richard Petty with a spirited walk down pit road and through the garage as he tries to find his driver, Darrell Wallace Jr., who finished second. pic.twitter.com/V7TiTrqWOH— Jordan Bianchi (@Jordan_Bianchi) February 18, 2018
A large of part of Petty’s enthusiam is the hope that his rookie driver can be the catalyst to turnaround a proud organization whose glory years are well in the rear-view mirror. Sponsors are enticed by what Wallace brings as a spokesman, and RPM is hoping it can parlay that interest into increased funding, something the organization has lacked and hindered any sustained rebuilding efforts.
And if Sunday is any indication, Wallace and Petty give the impression that they are an ideal combination.
“The team we have behind us right now is so much fun,” Wallace said. “And knowing that we’re a smaller budget team, we have a lot of poise and a lot of attitude and just a lot of stuff to fight for this year.”