Friday, September 30, 2011
But by the time there were four laps left, everything changed.
Moffitt’s right front tire let go and he crashed into the wall, sending Wallace on his way. Meanwhile, Gresham’s parameters switched from “drive for your life” to “just finish.” He did, and Gresham took the 2011 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship, while Wallace picked up the race win, becoming the first African American to ever win the pole and a race at Dover.
“It was an emotional win, especially for me, losing my uncle this past Saturday,” Wallace said. “I put his name over mine on the door, and he was riding shotgun with us. He’s the one who put us in Victory Lane.”
It was not a surprise to see Wallace up front. He had whipped the field in practice and qualifying – he ran a full 1.3 miles per hour faster than the competition in qualifying, which is an eternity by NASCAR standards. But he collided with teammate Sergio Pena early in the race and had to deal with some damage that put him two laps down.
However, the 17-year-old driver felt he’d grown a lot this season, and he put that growth to good use in confronting the situation.
“I’ve learned to not get in over my head in tough situations like today,” Wallace said. “I had a little damage and I thought our day was over with. But I persevered and my team persevered, and we were able to come back to the top.”
Meanwhile, Gresham celebrated his series championship alongside Wallace. Leading by just 21 points following Moffitt’s win in last week’s race, Gresham had no room for error – at least, not until Moffitt gave him some.
“Once Brett took the lead, at that point we had to do what we had to do to finish third,” Gresham said. “And if that meant racing as hard as we had to, that’s what we had to do, because we had to finish third and we knew it. As soon as [Moffitt’s tire blew], it was just a big sigh of relief."
But for a while there, Gresham’s own car was worrying him a bit.
“Those last 10, 15 laps, I definitely had a bad vibration,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what it was. The last few laps there during the caution I was just shaking the car down because I knew something wasn’t right. It was a good thing I didn’t have to race for position at that time, I could just ride the last three laps out and not have to worry about it.”
Gresham drives in the Joe Gibbs Racing developmental program, and his crew chief, Bryant Frazier, was Tony Stewart’s first crew chief when Stewart joined the team in 1998. Frazier was extremely proud of his latest young driver.
“He did exactly what we set out to do this year – be patient at times, drive hard when we need to, and win races,” Frazier said. “He ran every lap that the K&N Series ran this year, so that’s a testament in itself. Max has done a great job and this team has worked so hard all year long as a group. It’s just been a wonderful year, and that’s all a testament to Joe Gibbs Racing. There wasn’t a time this year where I couldn’t go to a Nationwide or a Cup crew chief and they wouldn’t give you an answer. That’s part of what makes this company as great as it is.”
At age 18, Gresham is now a NASCAR champion, and he’ll be right there with the big names at NASCAR’s awards banquet later this fall.
“It means everything in the world right now,” he said. “I have big stuff happening in the next week and I don’t even know what it is right now. To be a NASCAR champion is pretty much the biggest thing I wanted to do when I started racing, and now I am. This is as sweet as it could be right now.”