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Wallace looking to build on strong showing

Jeff Birchfield • Apr 4, 2019 at 4:22 PM

From a pure driving standpoint, the 2018 Food City 500 was the highlight of the season for Darrell Wallace Jr.

Sure, he made history with his second-place showing — the best finish ever by an African-American driver — at the Daytona 500. But to lead the first laps of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career at the high-banked Bristol Motor Speedway, it was something special to Wallace.

“That was a highlight of last year despite finishing second in the (Daytona) 500, to lead at Bristol,” he said. “Unfortunately, our tires started shredding apart the last 100 laps.”

Those late-race problems relegated Wallace to a 16th-place finish.

Wallace, who will drive the famed No. 43 Chevrolet for Richard Petty Motorsports in Sunday’s Food City 500, is no stranger to the high banks. The Mobile, Alabama, driver first came to Bristol as a teenager driving a lightweight Late Model car and has long considered it a favorite destination.

“I’ve been racing here for a while and Bristol has been my favorite track for a really long time,” he said. “It’s something I’ve adapted to well, but you have to be mindful that it can bite you really quick.”

It was Bristol where Wallace’s career was revived in 2017 when he won the Super Late Model feature at the Short Track U.S. Nationals. It led to an opportunity in the NASCAR Truck Series where Wallace took full advantage, winning at Michigan in his only start of the season.

“That was big,” he said. “It was away from the NASCAR ranks, but to get in that Super Late Model a first time and win, that was special. I will never forget that sensation of speed driving one of those cars around there.”

Bristol always feels fast to the drivers, especially this year with a new aerodynamic package on the cars expected to produce record speeds. It makes Bristol more challenging than the circuit’s other half-mile speedway in Martinsville, Virginia — where Wallace finished 17th weeks ago.

On the subject of records, Wallace is a diehard fan of the University of Tennessee — for whom his mother ran track. He enjoyed seeing the men’s basketball team win a program-record 19 consecutive games and set another milestone by being ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for a month during the season.

“I liked what the team was able to show, but I wish we could have made it a little further in the (NCAA) tournament,” he said about the Vols. “Still, they’ve come a long way in a short amount of time and (coach) Rick Barnes has done a great job with the boys.”

Wallace hopes to do a good job with his own crew Sunday. While he’s not had quite as good results as he hoped early in his sophomore season, currently 28th in the point standings, there is more of a comfort level than his rookie year. He hopes that carries through 500 laps at Bristol.

“Last year, you’re showing up at places for the first time and learning everything for the weekend,” he said. “We’re continuing to learn on what we did last year and hopefully this year, the last 100 laps, the right front (tire) will hang on.”

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