Daytona 500: Why NASCAR needs Bubba Wallace to be its breakout star

Wallace has everything necessary for crossover appeal ... except victories.
NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace talks with reporters Wednesday during Daytona 500 media day at Daytona International Speedway. [MATT BAKER | Times]
NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace talks with reporters Wednesday during Daytona 500 media day at Daytona International Speedway. [MATT BAKER | Times]
Published February 13

DAYTONA BEACH — By cracking self-deprecating jokes, bringing up his mom and throwing in a well-placed sponsor plug, Bubba Wallace was the unofficial winner of Wednesday’s Daytona 500 media day.

Now NASCAR just needs him to start winning on the track, because he seemingly has everything else necessary to become a star in a sport starving for crossover appeal.

The 25-year-old Alabama native showed that at last year’s Great American Race, when he skated through a last-lap wreck to finish second behind Austin Dillon in his first 500 appearance. In the media center afterward, he shared a 40-second embrace with his mother before breaking down and hiding his face with a towel.

“Shed a little tear for TV ratings,” Wallace joked Wednesday. “Got to get those up. That was all part of the plan. It worked out. Hell, I got a lot of people on my side over that.”

The way to keep them on his side, of course, is to win, which Wallace hasn’t yet done at his sport’s highest level.

He admittedly pushed too hard at times during last year’s rookie season, which put him in bad situations. Those errors contributed to his four race-ending crashes in the final 16 events.

“I was surprised how much I struggled —and let myself struggle ... ” said Wallace, who finished 28th in points. “I have enough experience to know some of the mistakes I made would have been preventable.”

But some of those struggles weren’t preventable from the driver’s seat.

His Richard Petty Motorsports team doesn’t have the budget of powerhouses like Joe Gibbs Racing or Team Penske. It’s a one-car shop trying to compete against multi-driver operations. His team has only one victory in the last six seasons — the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 that Tampa’s Aric Almirola won in 2014.

Without more on-track success, it’ll be hard for Wallace to establish himself as a rising star like his more accomplished 20-something peers, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney.

“But with not being in great stuff and being able to put himself out in front of the pack more often it kind of limits his driver star power,” said Kyle Busch, whom Wallace drove for in the Truck Series. “But he’s certainly one that’s out there that’s deserving in any spot.”

That’s because Wallace seems to have almost everything else going for him.

He’s young. He’s Southern (an Alabama native and Tennessee football fan). He’s approachable and interesting enough that Al Roker chose to interview him on The Today Show. He’s not afraid to tease the sport’s top rising star (his friend, Chase Elliott) about how big his head grew after his first win or jab its most accomplished driver (Jimmie Johnson) about wrecking Paul Menard in Sunday’s Clash.

And in a sport where too many of the drivers have become bland spokesmen, Wallace is authentic and unpredictable.

“I never know what’s going to happen with myself, okay?” Wallace said. “I surprise myself every day. … That’s what people tend to latch onto, is when you’re 100 percent raw and real.”

That rawness can come across as arrogance, which could be why he’s still hunting for long-term sponsors, just as he was when he started racing 16 years ago.

“They’re out there,” Wallace said. “That’s what my mom keeps telling me. I’ve got to keep listening to her.”

It got him this far, to NASCAR’s top rung and its famed No. 43 car. Now he’s trying to take it to an even more prestigious place, Victory Circle.

His sport needs it.

Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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