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September 14, 2017

Behind the Visor: Darrell Wallace Jr.’s season of change and growth

Scott Hunter

All I’ve done for the last 15 years is race — and when that gets pulled out from under you, it’s scary as hell.

It started when Roush Fenway Racing told me it would no longer run my No. 6 XFINITY Ford, leaving me without a ride for the rest of the 2017 season. I’m not like normal 23-year-olds; I’ve got a mortgage on my house, a car payment and a K-12 education.

Racing is the way I make a living.

The future right now is somewhat of a question mark for me; I’ve got some leads, but not much set in stone.

So, it’s hard not to question myself as I stare into a wide-open, but uncertain, rest of my career.

Wondering, “Am I done driving?”

PHOTOS: Our shoot with Bubba

Scott Hunter | NASCAR Productions

– – –

Three months ago, my life looked very different.

I was still driving the No. 6 for Roush Fenway Racing in the XFINITY Series. This was my third year driving in the series full time and I continued searching for that first trip to XFINITY Victory Lane. We had been slowly making gains — plenty of top 10s, some top-five finishes and a handful of runner-up results — but no W.

I still had most of my confidence, but every time you miss Victory Lane — 78 times in this case — you do lose a little bit of it, you know?

Sponsorship was always somewhat of a struggle, too; we would get the word we were good for a few races and then we would tack a few more on. That continued throughout the year. I always think about a bit of advice Adam Stevens, now Kyle Busch’s crew chief, told me in 2012 when I made my XFINITY debut.

“Sponsors look at results,” he said. Results meaning wins.

Scott Hunter/ NASCAR Productions

As we continued through the season, I never forgot that — but I was optimistic we would be OK. We were fourth in the points and would be contending for a championship, my crew chief Seth Barbour and I reasoned.

I never thought I would lose my ride. Not at that moment, not when we were a legitimate championship contender.

But we did — that’s just how racing works.

I try to be a positive person and live by the mantra that when one door closes, another opens. That the man upstairs wouldn’t let me fall.

And He didn’t.

Chris Trotman | Getty Images

Around the same time my No. 6 Ford ceased operation, I received a phone call asking me to drive the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford in the Monster Energy Series for a limited number of races during Aric Almirola’s injury recovery.

I knew this was a temporary deal and that I wouldn’t have anything to climb back into once I was done filling in for Aric. But having never raced a Cup car and with nothing else lined up, I was very grateful for the opportunity.

The first race at Pocono Raceway was shaky – I made a mistake on pit road and ended up 26th. But we got better each week: 19th, then 15th and then 11th – one spot away from a top 10 – in my last start at Kentucky Speedway.

In those four races, I wasn’t racing for points – I was racing to show everyone I could do it. The exposure I got from driving the No. 43 car was great. I had team owners and crew chiefs coming up to me in the garage, telling me ‘Good job.’

Scott Hunter/ NASCAR Productions

They weren’t asking me to drive their car, but they were paying attention.

That’s a start.

– – –

I spent five weeks out of the race car before I got my next chance at Michigan International Speedway, which entailed driving the No. 99 truck fielded by owner Matthew Miller.

Jumping back in the truck was huge. We were fast in practice, but started off a bit slow in the race.

I thought, “You know what, I have nothing to lose.”

I started making some bold moves, moves that some may call dumb, but I just didn’t care. I was doing what I knew I needed to do to win, adding some Bubba spice along the way.

Brian Lawdermilk | Getty Images

And it worked — I held on to take that checkered flag. My burnout was weak, but I was just so happy to be back there. You could tell by looking at me and my girlfriend Amanda’s faces that there were so many emotions playing at that moment.

But most importantly, it brought back a bit of confidence. A bit of Bubba back.

– – –

This past year — well, really the past couple years — has been a roller coaster ride. I’m working really hard to secure some opportunities for next season, ones that I’ve got my fingers crossed for.

Before that, I’ve signed a deal with Biagi DenBeste Racing to drive the No. 98 XFINITY Series ride at Chicagoland Speedway. I’m stoked to get back in the car and have truly loved everyone I’ve worked with this season. There are some good folks in racing and I’ve had a lot of people in my corner, advocates that I’m so grateful to have.

And honestly? Not having a ride has made me more humble and hungry to focus on what’s ahead.

In a few years, I hope I can look back and think, “Glad that crap’s over.” Like a “remember when?” moment.

But I’m keeping a positive attitude. I’m continuing to look at this trying season as a building block that will aid me in my next steps in racing. Making appearances at the track just to keep relevant in a very fast-moving sport.

Because I’m not done yet.