Wallace Jr. leaves the rookie pressure in 2013
February 06, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
With his rookie stripes off, Wallace Jr. has a new focus for this season -- winning
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Dressed in jeans and skateboard shoes while sporting a full beard and a big grin, 20-year-old Darrell Wallace Jr. sat way back in his director's chair to get comfortable as he conducted interview after interview during NASCAR's Sprint Media Tour last week in Charlotte.
The fun-loving, easy-going Wallace has proven a popular subject among the press contingent -- his personality and performance providing plenty to write about. And as he spoke in his distinctive Alabama drawl to reporters about his desire to find the fun again in racing after a high-stress, high-expectation rookie season in NASCAR's Camping World Truck Series, Wallace looked quite content.
But he's not -- in a good way.
Sure, he's reminded daily of his historic maiden NASCAR victory at Martinsville, Va., last October thanks to the grandfather clock the track gives its winners. It's one of the sport's most iconic trophies and certainly a prize possession.
But the way Wallace sees it, the clock’s ticking.
"Hard not to (think about the win), when I wake up every day and walk into the living room of my apartment and there's a clock sitting there," said Wallace, whose victory made him the first African-American driver to win a NASCAR national race in half a century.
"It's pretty cool. The first couple days I was cleaning it, making sure the time was right, the chimes were working but now, I got a little lazy and need to wind that back up.
"I still like to look at it and live off it, but it's time for a new win, no matter where it’s at."
Wallace will return to the Truck Series in 2014, again driving the No. 54 Toyota Tundra for Kyle Busch Motorsports, but this year feeling championship caliber after ranking eighth last year in the standings.
The historic tag that accompanies Wallace's win is simultaneously a source of much pride and a heaping of expectations -- a lot for any 20-year-old to absorb and live out. But this is Wallace's current reality and he has embraced it. At some point, he hopes to win so much that historic reference isn't necessary.
"That (his race) can be played out too much, but again, who else is out there?" Wallace said. "It's got to be played to a certain extent and I've got to carry that. I am a little bit darker than everyone else in the field.
"It's something we're trying to change and NASCAR is as a whole trying to bring in a younger fan base, a different-looking fan base, we're trying to change the whole demographic of the sport. Me going out to do that is something I'll take responsibility for."
But it wasn't so much history and headlines he is focused on during the offseason. Wallace said he spent less time reliving the successes of his first year in NASCAR's big leagues and more time analyzing the times he fell short -- the three races he crashed out of, the multiple opportunities to win he did not capitalize on.
And Wallace came to a firm conclusion. He pushed too hard and changed his approach. He forgot to enjoy.
"The truck series is so spread out, I had a few days to schlep around and mope around then my parents finally got tired of it and said, 'you need to shape up and change your attitude,' " Wallace recalled. "And that really hit home.
"I finally said, 'I get it.' I had put fun at the bottom of the list and put too much pressure on myself. I've already got 10,000 more eyes on me because I am of color and they're going to see what I can do in the top series.
"That's enough pressure in itself, so I don't need to add extra pressure. I need to go out there and run my own race, and have fun with it."
It was the approach that helped him do well enough in the developmental ranks to earn a seat at KBM and under the Joe Gibbs Racing umbrella, which is where Wallace hopes his future lies.
He'd like to add a few Nationwide Series events to his truck schedule considering he reeled off top-10 finishes in the first three of four NNS starts in 2012 and won the pole at Dover, Del., in his fourth race.
The results have backed up the promise in every situation, yet Wallace is still facing the same sponsorship problems so many other aspiring drivers do.
"I think the hard part for young guys is sponsors want to invest in guys they know and it’s hard," Joe Gibbs Racing General Manager JD Gibbs said. "We (at JGR) have a great team and the chance for sponsors to invest in these young guys and at the same time these Cup guys.
"It's a great philosophy and really, our future is with the young guys and we have a great crop coming up. I'd love for Darrell to be a part of that process. Have a breakout season and let's go with that."
That's certainly the plan for Wallace, who feels equal parts rejuvenated and re-motivated.
"I'd say the win is behind me now," Wallace said. "Yes, it was a big one, but it's a new season and that can't be the highlight anymore. I have to live up to it and I know I have to produce more than that one win late in the season.
"From what I've learned I need to do, is let everything else go and focus on finishing the race and having fun. That's one thing I didn’t do at the beginning of last season and it showed.
"I put too much pressure on myself, worried about beating (best friend Ryan) Blaney, worried about beating the rookies. So many things I put on myself that fun went all the way to the bottom and it showed. That won’t happen again.
"Last season we had a good two or three that we should have won, but didn't. That's what rookie stripes are for. But now that we've got those off, I’ve definitely got a new mindset for the new season."