The text messages began pouring in as soon as word got out.
“My phone has been exploding,” Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. said.
Good news travels fast. And for Wallace, Monday’s announcement that he will make his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debut this weekend at Pocono Raceway definitely qualified as good news.
Wallace, 23, will take over the legendary No. 43 fielded by Richard Petty Motorsports while the organization’s primary driver, Aric Almirola, continues to recover from a back injury suffered last month.
“The 43 is the most iconic number in NASCAR,” Wallace told NASCAR.com. “That’s huge. It’s something that represents 200 wins. Richard Petty, the King himself, I’ll be driving for him … there are just a lot of factors going into this weekend that make it that much sweeter. And really that much more bad-ass to be driving for him.”
Wallace will pull double duty at Pocono, competing in the No. 6 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing in the XFINITY Series on Saturday as well as Sunday’s Monster Energy Series race (3 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
A graduate of NASCAR’s Drive For Diversity program and former driver for Rev Racing, Wallace became just the fourth African American to compete full time in one of NASCAR’s three national series when he drove for Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2013-14.
He became only the second to score a win in one of the three series when he won at Martinsville Speedway in ’13. By the end of the following season, he had four more victories and an opportunity to join RFR.
NASCAR Hall of Fame member Wendell Scott is the only other African American to record a win. Scott competed as an independent during the 1960s and early ’70s. He earned his only win in 1964 at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Florida.
Bill Lester made 142 career Truck Series starts from 2000-07, as well as two Cup Series starts (2006) and one XFINITY Series start (1999); Willy T. Ribbs made three Monster Energy Cup Series starts in 1986 and raced fulltime in the Camping World Truck Series in 2001 for Bobby Hamilton Racing.
Wallace has three starts at Pocono, a three-turn, 2.5-mile track. He posted top-10 results in two Camping World Trucks Series starts and finished 16th in the XFINITY Series race there in 2016 with Roush.
“We’re going to make it a good place (to make my debut),” Wallace said, adding that he’s already spent time in the simulator at the Ford Performance Technical Center to prepare. “It’s one of those places that definitely is circled and highlighted. I definitely need a little more work for myself … it’s the most rhythm track that you go to and I struggle with that. You slip up once and your mind loses a little bit of focus.”
Almirola suffered a fracture of the T5 vertebra when he was involved in a three-car crash at Kansas Speedway last month. He is expected to be sidelined for eight to 12 weeks.
Regan Smith, a one-time winner in the Monster Energy Series, filled in for Almirola for three races — both the Monster Energy Open, a last-chance qualifying race for the series’ All-Star Race, and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, as well as last weekend’s race at Dover. He was running inside the top 15 late in the Dover race when a tire issue sent the No. 43 into the wall.
Wallace said he has realistic expectations for his time in the car.
“It’s not like I’m trying to go out there and set the world on fire and win practice … it’s not like the Late Model days, not like ‘OK we’re showing up here and we’re about to whoop everybody’s butt,’ ” he said. “For me it’s do the best I can, figure out how everybody in the Cup Series is working, figure out all the ins and outs of it, go out there and give everybody on the 43 car the finish they deserve.
“If we’re a 15th-place car … it’s my job to go out there and get 14th. My job isn’t to get 19th. Not step on anybody’s toes, just go out there and have a good, solid weekend.”
He’s gotten pointers from fellow drivers in the past, and hopes they’ll be just as forthcoming now that he’s competing in the Monster Energy Series. He’s raced with drivers such as Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott as each advanced through the various NASCAR series, and has competed against several of the Cup regulars on occasion in the XFINITY and Truck Series.
“Definitely lean on (Kevin) Harvick,” Wallace said of the ’14 Monster Energy Cup Series champion. “He’s definitely helped out in the past when times were tough.”
Seven-time series champ Jimmie Johnson has offered advice as well. “Every time I fire a text to him he’s always right there to respond,” Wallace said of the Hendrick Motorsports driver. “I hope it’s not like, ‘Alright now you’re in the big leagues we’re not helping you anymore.’
“I’m going to take what the weekend will give. If it’s destined that I’ll finish 35th and that’s all we’ve got, then hey that’s 35th. But if it’s 15th or 20th, that’s a really good day for me. To go out there and run (that) in my first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, it’s going to take a lot and going to be special to do that.”