Darrell Wallace Jr.: NASCAR’s ‘breakthrough’ opportunity

By Gary Graves (USA Today, May 16, 2012).

A recent Friday that Darrell Wallace Jr. could have reflected on the previous night’s race or done something completely different was instead spent at Richmond International Raceway, soaking up the bustle of the Nationwide Series garage.

He stayed in the background while crew members shuttled between the pits and the hauler of Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota Camry, but a couple of guys stopped to ask how he likes the crazy scene and if he was ready for this.

Lifting his sunglasses, Wallace smiled.#20

“Yeah,” he said. “For a while.”

Any driver making his way up the NASCAR ladder would say that. But Wallace, 18, stands out. The Mobile, Ala., native is about to become the third African-American to drive in NASCAR’s second-tier series when he starts Sunday’s Pioneer Hi-Bred 250 at Iowa Speedway— following Bill Lester (one race in 1999) and Marc Davis (10 races from 2008 to 2011).

He has already distinguished himself in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program aimed at increasing minority and female participation in the sport, earning a spot in JGR’s developmental program. That explains why he spent a day off at Richmond on the job.

“There’s a lot of value in being here, sticking around and watching,” said Wallace, scheduled to start four Nationwide races this season for JGR. “In the pits, it’s a lot more serious. You learn that you’ve got to be straight to the point on everything. I’m laid back and about having fun, but I love seeing how serious they are.”

Wallace has proven he’s a serious player at NASCAR’s late-model level. As a K&N Pro Series East rookie with Revolution Racing two years ago, he made series history as the first black driver to win a race at Greenville-Pickens Speedway, one of two victories that year en route to another milestone as the circuit’s Sunoco rookie of the year.

Wallace added three more wins last year, narrowly finishing second to Max Gresham in the title chase. He is 11th this season with JGR but added a second win at Greenville and remained focused on chasing a K&N title despite the anticipation of entering one of NASCAR’s national series.

“I don’t force the issue on anything,” Wallace said. “This race at Iowa, I’m excited about it but not overwhelming myself. I’m just going to go out there, have fun and try to run up front.

“It’s all about a learning curve, and I’m looking forward to it. They’re always building great cars and always trying to run up front, so there’s no reason we shouldn’t run up front.”

Equipment shouldn’t be an issue at Iowa. Wallace will drive the Dollar General-sponsored Toyota that Joey Logano took to victory lane last weekend at Darlington Raceway. But Wallace is aware that the road to Sprint Cup — NASCAR’s top level, in which only six African-Americans have competed, none since Lester in 2006 — could be long and arduous, especially with limited sponsorships available since the economic downturn.

That key element of racing has stalled many stock-car careers, but team owner Joe Gibbs thinks Wallace has the patience to wait it out and the talent to attract sponsors. It’s why he signed him as a developmental driver before he entered the D4D program, recognizing his potential but also seeing someone who knows how to keep expectations in perspective.

“You don’t want to step a guy up too fast,” said Gibbs, the Hall of Fame NFL coach. “He has a lot of experience in Late Models and K&N, and we’re stepping him along slowly in Nationwide. So I think he’s coming up the right way. Complicating this is sponsorship, but I’m hopeful that someone will see the opportunity because this could be a huge breakthrough for this sport.”

The sanctioning body was in agreement of the magnitude of Wallace’s debut. Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR’s vice president of public affairs and multicultural development, called it “a watershed moment” for its diversity program.

“It’s a highly visible moment for the Nationwide Series and an indicator of the success that the program is having across the board in developing young drivers and encouraging broader participation in NASCAR,” Jadotte said.

Wallace was grateful to D4D and JGR for providing opportunities. He credited the diversity program for immersing him in all aspects of racing and helping him become successful on the track.

In JGR, Wallace has a support system of crew chiefs, crewmembers and at least four teammates in Logano, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Brian Scott to complement the guidance of his parents, who have kept him centered as pursues his dream that he hopes includes a little more history in due time.

“Having my parents there help me get through tough situations,” Wallace said. “But Coach (Gibbs), J.D (Gibbs), Steve — they tell me that if I just keep doing what I’m doing, I’ll make it in the end.”

Story at USAtoday.com.

 

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