Darrell Wallace Jr. had gone into his bus for some clothes when a familiar feeling washed over him. The meetings are almost all done, the checklists made. Time has been put in on the simulator, numerous media requests, and the grind to get to Daytona is just about finished. And so, standing alone in the darkness, Wallace acknowledged the moment.
“I said, ‘Damn, it’s time to go,’” he recalled Tuesday smiling during Daytona 500 Media Day. “I’m pumped. I’m excited to get down there.”
Wallace understands that what he has with 23XI Racing is “for me the one and potentially last opportunity” in the NASCAR Cup Series. The excuses are gone when driving for a team affiliated with Joe Gibbs Racing that has Toyota support and plenty of resources — like being paired with a former Daytona 500 winning crew chief in Mike Wheeler — surrounding Wallace.
As he’s made a career of doing, Wallace expects to build something with 23XI. He does not expect to jump into his car and win right off the bat because, like any new team, a few races are always needed to get their feet underneath them. But the resume building begins in Daytona.
In 112 career Cup Series starts, Wallace has been a top-10 finisher nine times. A second-place finish in the 2018 Daytona 500 was the best finish for Richard Petty Motorsports, Wallace’s former team, since Brian Scott earned the same result at Talladega two years prior. Wallace’s three top-five finishes with Petty from 2018-20 could be considered overachievements for the underfunded organization.
This year, Wallace’s goals are different and much loftier. Wallace wants to win — at least twice.
“There is nothing wrong with having personal goals,” he said.
Winning teams run in the front half of the field consistently. While Wallace has had a taste of that competition, being a regular among the best drivers will be different and will bring an adjustment.
“I look at the races that we had driving (at Petty), the races where we were running up front and competing ,we were strong,” said Wallace. “Look at Indy two years ago and even last year. I know how to race against those guys. Do they expect me to be up there? No. Do they race me different because of it? Yes. And so, I think that’s the biggest thing is that’s going to change for other drivers.
“Hopefully, it’s like, OK, this kid, this guy, whatever they call me, knows what he’s doing up here and so we have to race him a little bit different. I’m not expecting it to be a cakewalk at all; we’re there to race and race hard. That’s what I’m looking forward to the most, more of running in the top 10 each and every week, showing we’re a factor and able to contend for wins and just go out and have fun and do the best we can.”
In Wallace’s corner is team co-owner Denny Hamlin, a three-time Daytona 500 winner who has become not only a series veteran but one of championship-caliber with over 40 wins on his resume. Hamlin has routinely praised Wallace’s talent and has belief in their being successful together.
Still an active driver himself for Joe Gibbs, Hamlin embarks on a new challenge of balancing his responsibilities and focus for the No. 11 team and being an owner. But Wallace said Hamlin is crunching away, and things are ramping up in their interaction and relationship as Daytona approaches.
“He (Hamlin) has been very vocal in our emails and text chain about getting together and setting expectations and how to execute the right way,” said Wallace. “I’m all ears and have the notebook ready to see what there is to offer. We just have to grow together as drivers and figure out how to push each other to be better.
“It’s going to take some time for me to grow with the team and to jell, but Denny told me at the beginning if there is something that’s not right, then don’t hesitate to go to him no matter the circumstances. I’ll make sure to have that lifeline in my back pocket when things aren’t going necessarily according to plan for whatever reason, but I don’t expect that to happen.
“I think we have the right people in the right place to make our program successful, from the front office to our guys in the shop to our road crew to our pit crew. Everything is in front of me right here. It’s not easy to grab, but it’s doable. We just have to go out and do it.”
Wallace will finally get to climb into his new No. 23 Toyota for the first time on Wednesday, Feb. 10, for practice. Daytona 500 qualifying is that same night.