CONCORD, N.C. - It's not difficult to identify the unquestioned top highlight of Bubba Wallace's 2018 season so far.
His runner-up finish in a dramatic Daytona 500 in his first full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season-and his emotional reaction afterwards-were defining moments both for Wallace and the sport.
Since then, however, the results have been spotty for the Richard Petty Motorsports driver. An eighth-place finish at Texas is Wallace's only other top 10, but his charge to the front at Bristol, with his car bedecked in traditional red-and-blue Petty colors, was another noteworthy accomplishment.
Ultimately, Wallace finished 16th after the handling of No. 43 Chevrolet deteriorate late in that race, and since then, Wallace has leveled off at 22nd in the series standings.
The results may be uneven, but make no mistake-the effort hasn't diminished. And neither has Wallace's enthusiasm.
"I'm enjoying the hell out of this year," said Wallace, whose NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victory at Martinsville in 2013 was the first for an African-American driver on one of NASCAR's top three tours since 1963. "I'm having so much fun, and some weeks are good. Some weeks are not what we want, but we're continuing and growing and learning from it, and that is all you can do.
"Everybody I've run into that has been around for many years in this sport continues to kind of tell me the same message... saying we're doing the right things. We're doing the best with what we've got, and when the car is right, it shows. When we are off a little bit, that also shows as well, but as long as we capitalize on those days and get the most out of it that we can, that is a successful day despite the finish that we didn't really want."
Wallace got his first taste of Cup racing last year when he subbed for injured Aric Almirola in the No. 43 car at Pocono, Michigan, Daytona and Kentucky. The series returns to those tracks over the next six weeks, and Wallace relishes the prospect.
"We're a small team, small budget, and we have shown some signs of great success throughout the year," said Wallace, who was 19th fastest in Saturday's final practice for the Coca-Cola 600 (6 p.m. Sunday on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). "I'm excited about the tracks that are coming up.
"We get into the tracks that I made my first four starts at last year while subbing in for Aric, so looking for a lot of momentum throughout this next month or so, this next stretch."
CAN KEVIN HARVICK OVERCOME LAST-PLACE STARTING SPOT
As Kevin Harvick tries to win a third straight Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points race for the second time this season, he'll be starting Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (6 p.m. Sunday on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) with a severe handicap-several of them, in fact.
Harvick's No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, winner of five events plus the exhibition Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race this season, failed pre-qualifying inspection three times on Thursday. As a consequence, Harvick will take the green flag from last place on Sunday evening.
Additionally, the team lost the services of car chief "Cheddar" Bob Smith for the weekend. If the crew chief is the captain of the race team, the car chief is the executive officer and organizer.
"The loss of Cheddar means I have to work a hell of a lot harder, but I was a car chief for many years," said crew chief Rodney Childers. "I can do it as good as anybody can, so we'll get through it, but we'll miss him on Sunday."
The inspection failures also cost Harvick 30 minutes of practice time on Saturday, a penalty that grew in significance when rain forced cancellation of Saturday's first session. Harvick was 17th fastest in Happy Hour.
The saving grace is that, by race time, Harvick routinely has outstanding speed.
"You either got a good car or you don't, and I'm guessing it'll be pretty good," Childers said philosophically. "We'll just have to serve our penalty and move on."
In fact, betting against Harvick this year would have been a quick way to go broke. Starting from rear is a handicap the 2014 series champion can overcome. It just makes the task more difficult-and potentially more impressive.
Erik Jones put his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota on top of the speed chart in Saturday's only practice session for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The Byron, Michigan, driver, who will turn 22 next Wednesday, ran 187.045 for his best lap. Jones also claimed the best consecutive 10-lap average at 184.579 mph, establishing himself as a threat to earn his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory. Kyle Larson had the second fastest single lap at 186.664 mph and was second to Jones in 10-lap average.
Coke 600 pole winner Kyle Busch was 18th fastest in final practice on Saturday, turning a lap at 184.691 mph. Joey Logano, who will start beside Busch on the front row, was the workhorse of happy Hour, turning 55 laps. Logano had the fourth fastest single lap at 186.047 mph. Larson and Kasey Kahne (ninth) had the two fastest Chevrolets in final practice. Eight-time Charlotte winner Jimmie Johnson was 11th on the speed chart.
--- NASCAR Wire Service ---