Better attitude, better results for Wallace
July 25, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
Darrell Wallace Jr. and his Kyle Busch Motorsports team so embraced the short-track atmosphere at Eldora Speedway that minutes before he was scheduled to load in for the main event of mudslinging, he and his crew were checking their raffle tickets from the well-worn local racing tradition of the 50/50 drawing on the bed of their No. 54 Toyota.
The P.A. announcer reeled off the numbers, but none came back a winner. His chances, though, were just about to start looking up, against what Wallace might consider similar odds.
Despite lacking a significant background on the Eldora clay, Wallace put on a display of mud mastery Wednesday night in the 1-800-CarCash Mudsummer Classic. His second NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victory of the season, made more remarkable for the intense late-race pressure applied by dirt-track wunderkind Kyle Larson, underscored his ability to adapt with a dominant 96 of 150 laps led.
"I'm still trying to figure out how this happened," Wallace said. "All day, I was like, 'I don't know what I'm doing.' I think this year was a little different for us."
The season as a whole has had a different feel, even though there are parallels to how the story has unfolded. In his rookie season of 2013, Wallace was sluggish out of the starting gates, then inconsistent in his bid to regain ground in the series standings. A breakthrough victory at Martinsville Speedway in the fall provided a defining highlight to an eighth-place finish in the championship hunt.
This year, early misfortune left Wallace mired in 11th place in the standings after six races. In the four events since, he's notched two wins (Gateway, Eldora) and a runner-up finish at Kentucky. Being caught by an ill-timed caution period at Iowa Speedway was the only thing keeping his pole-winning truck from making a clean sweep of powerful efforts.
Returning to previously unfamiliar tracks this season has accelerated Wallace's progress. A team-wide change in attitude has helped as well.
"Now we're playing catch-up again, but we're doing it smart," Wallace said. "I think last year, I'd try to catch up on the race track, lead every lap, all that stuff and get caught up in a bad spot again. As for now, we go out, we have fun, we relax, we work together, we win as a team, we lose as a team, and it's just something I said from the get-go: We win multiple races, we'll be a contender for the championship. No doubt."
Beyond KBM's approach in keeping composure has been a major upswing in performance. The two-truck operation has won eight of 10 races this season, with team owner Kyle Busch taking five and Erik Jones -- Wallace's 18-year-old part-time teammate -- scoring one.
Wallace said the team's standing this summer is in large part attributed to its diligence last winter in assembling trucks with the new, showroom-similar bodies for 2014.
"He wanted to make all his trucks better -- no matter if it was the 51 or 54," said of driver/team owner Busch. "He wanted to be in Victory Lane each and every race, and it's showing. It's such an honor to be part of this organization to get our third (career) win. These guys right here, they had an offseason, but the offseason was still in the shop each and every day for getting our new Toyota Tundras ready with the body changes. I think we're just ahead of the game on that. We've studied; we eat, sleep and drink what we need to get ready for the next race and we're just on top of it right now."
Though Wednesday night's win helped him jump two spots to sixth in the season-long standings, just 28 points behind new leader and good friend Ryan Blaney, Wallace insists he isn't crunching any numbers just yet.
"I'm not worried about points right now. Any time I do worry about points, no matter if it was the Summer Shootout five years ago, late models ... something bad would always happen. So I'm tired of the word 'points,' I don't like to think about the word 'points,' but I picked up a lot of points today and I'm proud of that."
The only true difficulty Wallace had at Eldora -- aside from the raffle loss -- was trying to plant the winner's golden shovel into the hard-packed track surface in Victory Lane ceremonies. Wallace laughed off his difficulty, which met with deadpan validation from track owner Tony Stewart "He's right. He really doesn't know how to use a shovel."
It was one of few hiccups on a magical night on the dirt.
"Before the race started, probably right toward the end of practice, one of the other teams came up," said Jerry Baxter, Wallace's crew chief. "It was a guy who's run a lot of dirt, started asking me a lot of questions ... 'Your truck looks good, he looks really good' and on and on. And I said, 'You know, you guys run on the dirt all the time. I'm not so sure my kid's even made a mud pie before.' So I was at a loss for words. I was shocked. He did a phenomenal job."