Each week after the race, I will take a look at our two Rookie of the Year (ROTY) contenders and any other drivers deemed a “rookie.” Like a professor, a grade will be provided for their performance on the track. All things considered, a high finish doesn’t necessarily mean a good grade as a bad finish doesn’t always result in a bad grade.
Let’s take a look at how our two ROTY contenders fared after the Daytona 500.
Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr.
If I was asked to pick one driver out of the 40 at Daytona who truly shined at “The Great American Race,” I would have to pick Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr.
In fact, Wallace had the quintessential “crowning glory” week in Daytona to kick off his first full season in NASCAR’s highest league. Stepping in to the iconic No. 43 would be a daunting task for any driver, let alone, a rookie with a lot to prove.
Nevertheless, Wallace’s first official showing behind the wheel came in the first Can-Am Duel race. Starting 13th, Wallace avoided a wreck-filled 60 laps to emerge third and fairly undamaged.
While the Duels only pitted half the field against each other, it gave these young guys a taste of what is to come in the Daytona 500.
Come Sunday, a lot of eyes were on the young driver. Naturally, many were curious to see how he would fair in his first 500.
While this wasn’t his first time at Daytona in a Cup car, as he ran the summer race in 2017 in the No. 43 in an emergency role for an injured Aric Almirola, this was his first real test. Nothing compares to the Daytona 500.
At any rate, Wallace started the race in seventh and ran front to mid-pack most of the race. More importantly, he avoided the wreck-fest that ended Stages 1 and 2 and even managed to escape the “Big One” at the end.
Of course, the biggest headline that came from the 500 was the battle for second coming to the checkered flag. At this point, Wallace and Denny Hamlin found themselves in a door-to-door battle for second coming to the checkered.
In the end, Wallace ended up against the outside wall with Hamlin pinned up against the driver’s door. However, Wallace took runner-up by inches but the real battle seemed to come after engines had been shut off. In comments after the race, Wallace commented that Hamlin raced him much like he raced Ryan Blaney at Martinsville last October. Hamlin countered back with comments on Twitter.
Do we have a new driver feud starting to kick off 2018?
In any case, Wallace’s second place finish made him the highest finishing African-American driver in Daytona 500 history. By and large, this is a great thing for Wallace and for this sport. Furthermore, I think this is only the start of many records that this young driver is going to break this season.
Following the race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. took to his weekly podcast, Dirty Mo Radio, to praise Wallace and his racing by saying, “A lot of people kind of wondered if he had done enough, I guess, to get this opportunity. I never felt that at all or felt like he didn’t deserve the chance. And he went out and proved it on Sunday by driving like a veteran and driving with his head on his shoulders.”
While Wallace had a great start to his season at Daytona, the real test begins this weekend at Atlanta.
Daytona 500 Grade: A-
Notes: While Wallace raced and battled hard for his second place finish, Daytona is one of those tracks where anyone can win. Let’s see how he fairs at Atlanta.
By and large, Daytona was a bit of a wild ride for rookie William Byron. Although Hendrick Motorsports brought a fast car to Daytona, that didn’t stop him from causing a few caution flags throughout the week.
On one hand, Byron’s week at Daytona started off on a high note. Topping the leaderboard for final practice and posting a great qualifying run, Byron found himself in the third starting spot for the first Can-Am Duel race.
All told, that was about the only good thing about the Duel race for Byron and the No. 24 team. Incidentally, he spun out during his Duel race and ended up 18th.
As a result, the North Carolinian started at the back of the field in 33rd for the Daytona 500.
As a consequence, Byron’s first Daytona 500 was fairly eventful as he was involved in a few caution flags. First, Byron was caught up in the Stage 1 crash on lap 60. This incident collected some big names like Jimmie Johnson. Later, possibly due to damage sustained in the earlier crash, the No. 24 hit the wall to bring out a caution for debris.
In the waning moments of the 500, Byron lost grip and lost control of his Camaro. In this case, good handling keeps him mostly damage free and he is able to continue on. Accordingly, he finished four laps down but ten spots higher than where he started in the 23rd spot.
Daytona 500 Grade: C-
Notes: While Byron may not have had a great race, he gained some valuable time in the racecar. Also, this was his first official race in a Cup car. Above all, he still has a lot of learning to do before he can get rid of his rookie stripes.