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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The vignettes of emotion around Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. started early Sunday, well before he set sail in Richard Petty’s No. 43 for his first Daytona 500. They ended with a warm reception from his family after his second-place finish at Daytona International Speedway.
“We’ve waited so long, baby. So long,” Desiree Wallace, Bubba’s mother, said during their extended, tearful embrace.
The 24-year-old Wallace wept openly during his post-race news conference, his emotions pouring over after kicking off his rookie season in NASCAR’s big leagues with his first top-five result. His first year of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup competition comes filled with optimism, on the heels of a 2017 campaign filled with uncertainty.
Sunday’s finish fueled that hope and uncorked all the feelings.
“It’s a sensitive subject, but I’m just so emotional over where my family has been the last two years, and I don’t talk about it, but it’s just so hard,” Wallace said through tears, “and so having them here to support me is … pull it together, bud, pull it together. You just finished second. It’s awesome.
“I just try so hard to be successful at everything I do, and my family pushes me each and every day, and they might not even know it, but I just want to make them proud.”
Cameras for the Facebook Watch documentary series “Behind the Wall” had been following Wallace around all week. Sunday, they recorded a surplus of material.
Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton, a trailblazer in his own right in another form of motorsports, followed him on Twitter and gave him a social-media note of encouragement Sunday morning. And Wallace said he received a phone call from Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, who — like Wallace — also hails from Mobile, Alabama.
“Just knowing that people are tuning in and hopefully noticing the new face and the new change that’s coming to NASCAR and they get behind it and support it,” Wallace said. “Just exciting.”
Wallace’s Sunday drive made sure that people took notice. From his seventh starting spot, he moved up into the top five and positioned himself firmly in the top 10 for the closing stretch. Once bedlam erupted in Turn 1 on the next-to-last lap of regulation, Wallace avoided contact and put himself in contention for the frantic final laps of overtime.
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Wallace’s No. 43 Chevrolet scraped together with Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota as they crossed the finish line just behind 500 winner Austin Dillon. Though Wallace admitted to a measure of disappointment in coming up just short of a major victory, he still savored the flood of sentimental moments in his first “Great American Race.”
“No matter what the circumstances are, when you have family here and you run good and it’s been a while since you’ve been somewhat competitive, it pulls on the heartstrings,” Wallace said. “I’m competitive. I love to win. I hate to finish second. Obviously that shows for everybody. But I’m human. No matter if I race cars for a living and enjoy doing it, at the end of the day we all get emotional about something, so I’m just the same as you guys.”