By Toby Christie (Follow on Twitter @Toby_Christie)
The freshman campaign is in the books for Bubba Wallace, and when you look back at the 2018 season for the young racer it can be summed up simply as a roller coaster ride.
Wallace began the season with a bang in the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. He rolled from the grid in the seventh position. In a crash-marred event the rookie drove like a cagey veteran as he stayed out of trouble and was in position to chase a win in the closing laps.
On the final lap, Wallace was in the third position when Austin Dillon crashed Aric Almirola for the lead. Wallace was now fighting for a runner-up finish with Denny Hamlin. As they came out of turn four, Wallace and Hamlin were neck and neck. the two rubbed coming down the front stretch and when they crossed the line, Wallace barely nipped Hamlin for second-place.
“Thank you to the King as well for giving me this opportunity putting them second-place, putting Click N’ Close in second place. We know how much stress this team has been through in the last three or four months just trying to get this program together,” Wallace said after the Daytona 500. “For me to come out here with this hectic three months I’ve had with the Facebook Series ‘Behind the Wall – with Bubba Wallace’ check it out. Hell, of an ending for us tonight, but P2 for my first Daytona 500, I’ll take it.”
This was obviously an emotional moment for Wallace, and it was definitely the highlight of his rookie year. But the 25-year-old driver did have some other great runs throughout the year.
After a five-race streak of finishing 20th-or-worse, Wallace put together a solid eighth-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway. The following week at Bristol, Wallace actually out-powered Kyle Busch for the lead in the final stage of the race. Wallace would lead six laps before ultimately fading to finish 16th.
Wallace also recorded finishes of 16th in the GEICO 500 at Talladega and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. As the season crossed into July, Wallace notched a 14th-place finish at the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona.
The fall would be a severe struggle for Wallace and the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports team. In September and October, Wallace only recorded a single top-20 finish, which came at Talladega. The Alabama native also racked up three DNFs during the two month stretch.
However, in the next-to-last race of the year at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, Wallace impressed as he went from the 30th starting position to a solid 10th-place finish. This marked Wallace’s third and final top-10 finish of the year. Wallace was just happy to have a race go his way for a change.
“We were up there and we had underdog speed in the top 15 three quarters through the race and I didn’t like having all those cautions,” Wallace said. “I did because it would give us a chance to fire back off, but once we got leveled out those guys could just drive right by us. We are still working on our speed. We are still making the most of it. It was nice to be able to survive, catch a couple of breaks, catch a lot of breaks actually. Just have luck on our side for once. It was great to have the Air Force on our car for Veteran’s Day and our Chevrolet was actually decent this time.”
In all, Wallace recorded a top-five finish and three top-10 finishes and he finished 28th in the overall Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship standings. Wallace would finish runner-up to William Byron in the Rookie of the Year standings as well.
As we fast-forward to 2019, what can we expect from Wallace and his Richard Petty Motorsports team? As this past season rolled on, the organization was able to attract some sponsors such as the NASCAR Racing Experience and World Wide Technology, all indications are that these sponsors will return along with STP and the U.S. Air Force this season.
As far as Click N Close, who sponsored the No. 43 for three events in 2018, we are still waiting to hear if they will return for another season.
If the mortgage company does return the team as a result should be in a slightly better position financially before the new year begins. Hopefully the team can afford to continue upgrading their equipment to get a now more experienced Wallace in a better position to succeed.
The team benefited early in the season from a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, but as the season drug on the alliance was mentioned less and less.
Wallace should continue to be stout at the Superspeedways in 2019, but it will be interesting to see if the new aero and engine rules for teams benefits the No. 43 crew on the intermediate race tracks.
Richard Petty Motorsports has a super talented driver in Wallace, and a competent crew chief in Drew Blickensderfer. I expect this combination to produce more than three top-10 finishes in 2019.