Monday, Dec 06

Ryan Blaney, Bubba Wallace take on Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge prior to Daytona 500

Holly Cain - NASCAR Wire Service Thursday, Feb 13 1327
Ryan Blaney, Bubba Wallace take on Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge prior to Daytona 500 NK Photography Photo

Bubba Wallace and Ryan Blaney strolled through the secret back-lot of Disney World’s Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge Tuesday morning before entering into a vast, impressive new reality on the other side of the elaborate backdrops. The Millennium Falcon was parked in the distance, looming over lines of eager tourists. And Chewbacca was strolling around the grounds of the famed Hollywood Studios, stopping frequently to pose for photographs with fans waiting to ride new Star Wars-themed attractions.

Wallace, 26, who drives the famed No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet and Blaney, 26, who drives the No. 12 Team Penske Ford in NASCAR’s premier Cup Series, are longtime friends. And on this off-day during Daytona Speedweeks, the two enjoyed the opportunity to check out the theme park. As fans sporadically recognized these two particular Disney tourists, Wallace and Blaney became popular attractions as well.

Even a pair of Storm Troopers wanted photographs with NASCAR’s young superstars, who were clearly enjoying the outing - even game enough to try their hands at a lightsaber duel.

“That was so cool,’’ said Blaney, an avid Star Wars fan, who has multiple tattoos depicting characters from the famous movie series, including a Darth Vader tattoo on his right leg. He remembers seeing the franchise’s “The Phantom Menace” as a little boy and confesses he’s dressed as a Star Wars movie character every Halloween since.

The smile on his face left no doubt he was enjoying this particular pre-Daytona 500 experience.

“I hadn’t looked up the reviews of any rides here because I wanted to be surprised,’’ he said smiling. “And that was crazy.’’

This weekend, the two racers will be working an hour north of Disney, dressed for their own full-throttle test of man and machine on the Daytona International Speedway high-banks for the 2020 season-opening Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

The weekend starts a re-set for the talented twosome – both of whom have enjoyed some of their career highlights at the famous Daytona track. Wallace scored an emotional runner-up finish in his 2018 Daytona 500 debut. The year prior, Blaney also finished with an emotional second place. In 2018, he led a dominating 118 of the 207 laps and finished seventh. Last February, both drivers were collected in accidents.

“Daytona is just so up in the air, you never know,’’ Blaney said. “It’s a place where you can’t really control your own destiny as well as you’d like, but it’s always nice to have a good run here.

“He [Wallace] ran second here two years ago. We both had a couple times we made it to the end and had a shot at it. It’s just a special time of year for everybody.’’

Wallace, who said Tuesday’s outing was only the second Disney trip of his life, was equally optimistic about the season and Daytona, in particular.

Both Wallace and Blaney will have new crew chiefs this year. Wallace’s team will be led by veteran Jerry Baxter, who guided Wallace to five wins in his first two NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series seasons in 2013-14. Blaney will have Todd Gordon at the helm this year – part of a full Team Penske three-team crew chief swap. Gordon previously led Joey Logano to the 2015 Daytona 500 win and the 2018 Cup title.

“I’m optimistic about our superspeedway stuff,’’ Wallace said. “I sat down with [new crew chief] Jerry [Baxter] and said, ‘whatever we had last year, let’s work around that package.’ RPM does a great job and builds us fast race cars for the speedway stuff.’’

Blaney was equally optimistic about his new pairing with the veteran Gordon. Although he did laugh a bit when talking about the time during Sunday’s Busch Clash when Gordon started to call him “Joey” instead of “Ryan.”

“It went well,’’ Blaney said of his first outing with Gordon – although it ended in a late-race accident. “We’ll get a better idea when we get to Vegas and Fontana when we’re working through a lot of changes throughout the weekend. But it’s going good.

“He started to call me Joey one time during the Clash, he said, ‘Joe-Ryan,’ … just time to adjust,’’ Blaney recalled with a smile. “It’s good so far. He’s a great guy and great working with people. Excited to get going and kinda get into the rhythm.’’

By the time both Wallace and Blaney get back to Daytona for Thursday’s qualifying Duel races, the Bluegreen Vacations Duel (7 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), they will have had a rather unique opportunity to put their driving skills to the test – piloting the Millennium Falcon. Both emerged with smiles. Although Wallace may not have originally been a huge Star Wars aficionado, he certainly left the outing impressed with the technology behind the theme park.

And they both gained a new Storm Trooper friend.

“The rides are awesome,’’ Blaney said. “The detail they put into this place is awesome. Gonna walk around and take it all in.

“The detail. … down to the last little bit on everything, shows a lot of dedication.’’

It’s certainly a sensibility both of these young drivers can appreciate.

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