DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — For Darrell Wallace Jr., Sunday’s Daytona 500 doesn’t just mark his first race as a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver.
It marks the culmination of one journey and the beginning of another.
Wallace has scrapped, clawed and fought his way forward to have a chance at NASCAR’s premier level, going all the way back to his days in the Drive for Diversity and NASCAR Next programs as he hoped to be the next young gun to make his mark.
This weekend, that footprint will truly begin to form, as Wallace becomes the first full-time African-American driver to compete at the top level of the sport since 1971, the last year that Wendell Scott contested the Cup schedule.
It’s a role that has been widely publicized since Wallace was first announced as the new driver of the iconic Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43, but it’s also a role that Wallace has embraced.
After all, he knows it’s going to continue to be talked about, whether he likes it or not.
“(The media) is going to keep putting the black driver thing out there, so I’m telling fans to embrace it because that’s all they’re going to keep hearing,” Wallace said during Daytona 500 Media Day on Wednesday. “But I’m looking forward to it, to be able to represent the black culture. It’s going to be good.”
Wallace also recognizes the history that comes with driving for a car owner who won seven Cup titles and 200 races, as well as the legacy that Scott started in the 1960s — a legacy that he’ll continue in his own right when he takes the green flag this weekend.
“There’s a lot of stuff that’s riding (with me) this weekend,” he admitted. “I know it. I pay attention to it. I follow a lot of people on social media, and it’s being put out there, so I’m just doing my best at managing it, keeping it behind me and knowing that’s the best thing I can do.”
So what’s his strategy? Simply this: shut out the chatter and go race the race.
“I let the talk going into my truck debut here at Daytona get to me,” Wallace explained. … All the media went, ‘Oh, here comes Bubba out of the K&N Series’ and all that stuff, and I was like, ‘I’ve got to be top of the board. I’ve got to win qualifying. I’ve got to win the race.’ And what do you do? You wreck out because you’re not focused on what you really need to be focused on.”
“One thing that I’ve learned over the years is just to be super-relaxed, and that’s how I’m taking this season with everything that’s riding on it.”
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