Wind, glare galore and the last practice session at Auto Club Speedway beckoning, Darrell “Bubba” Wallace leaned up against his motorhome and wondered aloud what the day, and more importantly, Sunday would bring.
Darrell, it’s a piercing Saturday afternoon here at wind-whipped Auto Club Speedway. To your way of seeing things, how’s it all going?
The wind needs to die down! This is crazy. Ever since we got here on Thursday it’s been shaking everything the whole time I’ve been here. But I love coming to this place. This place is so fun just because it’s so wide and has so many grooves and it’s worn-out. We actually get to race a little bit.
Yeah, Chris Buescher told me that yesterday. He basically said you can drop down and mow the infield grass here if you want to…
For various reasons, there was pressure and there were distractions for you throughout your rookie year of Cup with Richard Petty Motorsports. Are you happy to have that first season out of the way?
Yeah, no doubt. I’m definitely glad it’s behind us so we can learn from it and build off it now. Going to all these tracks for the second time now is pretty big, so we’re taking it one race at a time and one day at a time and we’re enjoying it.
On more than one occasion I’ve read or heard you say that you’re living your dream. You don’t hear too many athletes, racers say that very often…
Yeah, we’re all kind of put in this spotlight and it’s our jobs to make the most of it on and off the racetrack. We have frustrating times on the racetrack that make for tough days off, but you live and you learn and you throw those behind you and you can wake up again the next day and come back and do it all again. You want to get to that next race and put anything negative behind you.
You have a new crew chief in Derek Stamets. How has that all been going?
It’s been good. It’s totally different. You have two different types of styles of crew chiefs: You’ve got the racing type and you also have the engineering type, so Drew [Blickensderfer] was very beneficial to us last year. And he was a little bit of both — he was a little bit of a racer and engineer. Now, with Derek, he’s straight engineering. A little bit of change of pace. It’s been good. He’s not really the talkative one — it’s a lot to get him to talk, but he’s always working and he’s always thinking and he’s always trying to make our race cars better and that’s what you want. We can work on the communication side as we grow together. He was our engineer last year so it’s like we really didn’t skip a beat. He got promoted and he’s doing a heck of a job.
As far as engineering goes in the sport, fans may not realize what a comprehensive, exhausting task it can be in setting up a Cup car.
Yeah, it’s not just about throwing your bars and springs in it. We have simulation tools that we use on a computer that will actually tell us what we’re up to. We can run a lap on the computer and it’ll dump out a bunch of information that I couldn’t even understand, but the engineers do and that’s how we kind of base our setups. I mean, we look at it like: What’s going to give us the most grip and what’s going to give us the most speed? Again, we’re dealing with a computer versus real life and it’s never the same, you know? We come up with something where you look at the common sense side of it, but you also sort of give and take a certain couple things where you are, like, “Well, that’s not really going to work in real life.” It’s a challenge, but that’s why we are up for them.
Four races into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, and all things considered, what do you think so far? Happy? Unhappy? In between?
We’re all frustrated at the moment. It’s a learning curve for all of us trying with this new package; every team in the garage is still trying to figure it out. For us, being a smaller team with a smaller budget, there are a lot more obstacles that we have to go through and a lot more hurdles that we have to climb. We’re going to go through those rough moments and those rough patches — practice isn’t going to go our way and qualifying isn’t going to go our way. We’re just trying to get more speed and a better understanding of these cars. We’re definitely not where we want to be, but we’re trying to be optimistic about the direction that we are headed.
From here you guys will roll eastward to Martinsville, Texas and Bristol. Are you good with that?
Yeah, I’m excited to get down to the short tracks. Martinsville is my favorite track, so I’m looking forward to that one, but like we said earlier, we’re always excited to get to the next one.
Realistically, what will make you happy when you walk out of here on Sunday night?
Realistically? A top-20 finish for us would be a solid day. We can usually fire off the races OK but then we sort of lose it that last run of the race, so if we could just maintain and do nothing too exciting, not too crazy type of day, then we should be all right.
This season is still very young, but what do you want to get out of the year?
You just look at last year and some of our downfalls and we’ll just build off those and then just do better. I really sort of let the pressure get to me and set in toward the end of the season and that’s when the mistakes came. I just want to manage everything on an even level and take every race one at a time and don’t overstep it; just take what the car will give you and move on.