Bubba Wallace looks forward to Coliseum Clash unknowns with shoulder surgery in the rearview mirror

Compared to other NASCAR Cup Series drivers, Bubba Wallace had to endure a much longer and more inert offseason: He lasted just five laps at last year’s Championship Race in Phoenix before getting twisted and from crashing, and since then he has had to wait to get back into a race car while recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum – an injury that developed over nearly 20 years of racing on its way to the top level of NASCAR.

After almost three full months, the wait ended last week at the same place it started. Wallace returned to the driver’s seat during a NASCAR organizational test in Phoenix, giving him much-needed track time in the Cup Series Next Gen car and the opportunity to see how his surgically repaired shoulder would physically hold up.

It was then that Wallace, in all-familiar but completely new surroundings, began to get an idea of ​​what he can expect as his fifth Cup Series season begins.

“Any time you have surgery and you have to go play or whatever, you don’t know what to expect. But I had no issues in the car and no issues out of the car,” Wallace told CBS Sports. shoulder. “Usually we would talk about fatigue and maybe it was swelling, but I had none of that. I was able to have the same function as before going up as after.

“Thank you to everyone at Toyota and TPC (Toyota Performance Center) for getting me through rehab and for continuing to do rehab to get back to 100%. It felt great to be back in the car. , it was a good test.”

It was arguably imperative that Wallace get the chance to test the Next Gen car in Phoenix: although he took part in a Next Gen test in October, he missed a pair of important tests in Charlotte and Daytona like the rules package for the car – 670 horsepower with a four-inch fin on all tracks except superspeedways – was finalized.

Given that, Wallace didn’t necessarily tout the party line on how the Next Gen car would bring an infusion of excitement into the on-track product. For him, much of the excitement about the latest generation of NASCAR stock cars and exactly how they will race lies in the ambiguity of those ideas.

“It’s hard to really know what to expect, because we just don’t know. And that’s what makes it exciting for me, is the uncertainty,” Wallace said. “So accepting that and being ready for whatever comes our way – you have to be ready for that. So it was good to be back in the car, to understand what we need as a team, what which the car needs to be successful and to be fast, so we have learned a lot of good things over the last week, the last two days to understand the direction we have to go.

“We’re just going to get to the circuit, go through those first five races to really get some direction and a sense of where we’re at as a team, and move on from there.”

The first thing that comes to Wallace is this weekend’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Coliseum – a quarter-mile short track in one of the world’s most famous arenas, and a challenge that unlike anything NASCAR drivers have encountered in generations. The only thing remotely analogous to the new purpose-built LA Coliseum track is the legendary Bowman Gray Stadium, an iconic quarter-mile short track in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which was used as the home ground. trying to develop a tire for this weekend. races.

On the surface, one would assume that Wallace’s experience racing stock cars at Bowman Gray — he raced there twice in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, finishing sixth and second — would give him insight into exactly what he’s gotten into. embark. But Wallace noted that the Colosseum trail might be even crazier than the place traditionally known as “The Madhouse.”

“I think it’s going to be even tighter than Bowman Gray because we’re basically running into the football field instead of around it,” Wallace said. “The corners feel a bit tighter, the straights feel a bit shorter. It will be interesting to see, it will be exciting for the fans.”

The fans Wallace alluded to are very different from the fans of Bowman Gray and many other tracks NASCAR has raced on. Compared to racing at traditional and generational tracks in the Carolinas and beyond, the Clash at the Coliseum is poised to be the first experience many of its attendees have with stock car racing: According to a report by NBC Sports’ Dustin Long, over 70% of fans who purchased Clash tickets had not purchased a ticket for a NASCAR race before.

As he has risen to prominence, much of what Wallace has done and tried to do as an ambassador for NASCAR is to welcome new audiences to the sport. And as he tries to become the first pilot to conquer the Colosseum, he’ll be interested to see who those new faces are in the stands.

“We have a lot of entertainment for this exhibition race, so NASCAR is just stepping out of its little box and stepping out of its realm and doing something different and getting into that stuff,” Wallace said. “And there’s nothing wrong with that – there’s nothing wrong with being different.

“So I think it’s cool for them. We’ve got a lot of exciting things going on this year and we’re starting the year off with something that might be chaotic, but it might be one of the coolest things that we see. So we’re gonna have to find out.”

Wallace’s return to the track and his latest adventure in new and novel comes with a major addition to his off-track portfolio: Wednesday saw the launch of Columbia Sportswear‘s Bubba Wallace Collection, a new line of apparel outdoor gear designed with input from Wallace – – an outdoor enthusiast and outdoor photographer who developed his first line of clothing with comfort and function in mind.

“When we sat down with Columbia before we even signed the contract, it was like, ‘What can we do to promote each other’s brands off the track?’ It quickly turned out to be like making our own collection, so I had to let my creativity run wild,” Wallace said. “I’ve never done a clothing line, so it was new to me. But we were able to have a lot of fun with it.

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