Wallace Jr. frustrated despite progress
September 28, 2013, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com
LAS VEGAS -- When his No. 54 Toyota had been parked on pit road alongside the rest of Saturday night's top performers, Darrell Wallace Jr. climbed out of the window in front of his content crew with a frown on his face.
He chucked his Powerade sports drink to the ground, then kicked it toward the infield grass for good measure. He walked to the discarded bottle alone, head down under the bright lights at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and sighed loudly.
"I'm just ready to go on to next year and see how that plays out," Wallace said moments later, as race winner Timothy Peters burned victory circles behind him.
Like so many drivers before him, Bubba Wallace is learning about the delicate balance of being proud of progress while simultaneously disappointed in how his results stack up to his expectations.
That solitary stroll down pit road came on the heels of a fifth-place finish in Saturday night's Smith's 350. It was Wallace's fourth top-five of the season, and third in his past four races.
He led 23 laps and was seventh on the final restart with two laps to go before passing John Wes Townley to get to sixth and then inching by Ron Hornaday Jr. at the start/finish line to clinch the top-five spot.
"We had a truck that was capable of winning. It's just, still trying to figure out how to work the dirty air and the clean air," Wallace said. "That's what I mean when I say I'm ready for next year. Clean air is your best friend, and dirty air is your worst enemy. I know I'm a rookie and all, but man. I felt like I could lap this field and lap myself if I got out front. I felt like we were that good."
Wallace was one of a few drivers to take four tires during early pit stops, which kept him toward the middle of the pack after starting 17th. During the third caution of the night on Lap 48, he needed only fuel and adjustments while all other drivers took tires.
He came out of the pits in first, and his No. 54 truck was a rocket out front. He led 20 laps before Ty Dillon, who finished fourth, caught him on Lap 69. Still, Wallace ran in the top-10 the rest of the race.
The rookie was second following a restart on Lap 102, but the close-quarters racing that dominated Saturday's race wasn't a conducive condition. Trucks were going three-wide into Turn 1 on restarts, and four-wide coming out of Turn 4, and Wallace lost five spots in one lap, falling to seventh.
"That was one of those instances where, we just got sent back," Wallace said. "It's incredibly frustrating."
Once he paused for a few minutes, the driver's outlook took a slight turn. Here was a team that has struggled at mile-and-a-half tracks this year -- including a 27th-place effort at a similarly configured Charlotte circuit -- that was in the top 10 for 100 of the 146 laps.
And if Wallace wasn't ready to celebrate, his team sure was. The No. 54 crew all reached out when noticing Wallace's frustration. Searching for a smile, a crew member simulated an exaggerated dice throw. The message was clear -- this team came to Vegas to gamble.
"It helps when I get out of the truck and every single one of my guys says 'keep your head up, you finished top-five,'" Wallace said. "And that is true. But I look at it is, damn, we only have five races left. I want to win. I want to win bad."
Now, there's a feeling that any driver can relate to. The 19-year-old Wallace feels it. Series points leader Matt Crafton felt it, too, and the two drivers from two different generations commiserated together on pit road following their fifth- and 11th-place efforts.
"We're so close. It's just the biggest frustration," Wallace said.
"I thought we were a top-10 truck, so this is definitely exceeding our expectations. We should be (happy)," he said less than one minute later.
On this night in the desert, you couldn't tell which feeling ran deeper.