Did You Notice? … Darrell Wallace Jr. is embarking on an audition for his NASCAR career? To me, the most telling moments of his Tuesday press conference were when Wallace was asked about the future, after Aric Almirola returns to the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford.
“Honestly I can’t really touch on that,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Neither does anyone else. What we do know is Wallace has a six-to-ten week window as the sport’s first full-time African-American Cup driver since Bill Lester in 2006. In the interim, his full-time XFINITY ride has been shut down at Roush Fenway Racing after two-plus seasons. That means the number of full-time, competitive opportunities for a driver the sport desperately wants to succeed could simply run out.
Wallace’s audition in XFINITY never lived up to expectations. RFR did everything within their power to get him sponsorship, even teaming up with LeBron James’ people at one point. But a full-time backer never came, along with a trip to Victory Lane. Wallace hasn’t even earned a top-five finish this season and has just six in 83 career XFINITY starts after multiple wins in the Truck Series.
“There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about that,” Wallace said. “Trucks, that was two, three years ago. Times have changed.
“I guess I’m beating myself up over it right now. It’s not for lack of effort. All the stars have got to be lined up. We had opportunities… just weren’t able to capitalize on it.”
So now, NASCAR and Ford are looking to capitalize on an opening at the No. 43. They saw the writing on the wall with RFR running out of funding for Wallace’s No. 6 car after Pocono. RPM needs a driver for the next two months, and while Regan Smith is capable he’s not exactly a trailblazer for a sport with double-digit ratings and attendance declines.
Enter RPM’s Andrew Murstein, one of the sport’s more progressive car owners who has always wanted to make a big splash in this sport. Add in the legend of Richard Petty, pairing with a guy like Wallace and a few good runs here could lead to a future under the RPM umbrella. All involved would desperately like to see that happen; Wallace will be given every opportunity here to succeed.
If not? The consequences for the sport could be devastating. It’s not like there’s a long pipeline of African-American drivers looking to break down the door in the sport’s top three series. As we saw a few weeks ago, with the closure of the Truck Series team at Red Horse Racing, the number of open rides to even move up the ladder are few and far between. If there’s going to be a Tiger Woods entering the NASCAR Cup arena within the next five years, maybe ten Wallace is it.
To the young driver’s credit, he’s a great personality that is able to handle the pressure of such a breakthrough. Wallace claimed the perception the sport is not open to people of all ethnicities has been “shut down a long time ago.” The 23-year-old is a darling on social media and has been trumpeted by the sport’s most successful African-American family, the Scotts.
But some would argue NASCAR still fights a perception problem that it’s open to all. The Mauricia Grant lawsuit accusing the sport of racism within its officials is less than a decade old. The sport’s car owners and major power players, with a few exceptions are a bunch of old white men. Let’s not forget even last year, CEO Brian France was openly political by pledging his support for Donald Trump in a polarizing national election. Stock car racing could do a better job of producing a clearer message it’s open to everyone.
Can Wallace help bridge that gap? It’ll all come down to performance. Keep in mind Jimmie Johnson never lit the XFINITY world on fire, winning just once in the then-Busch Series while collecting just four top-five finishes in 72 starts – two less than Wallace. The No. 43 car isn’t exactly like the No. 48 and Hendrick Motorsports but they’re capable of a top-10 finish, perhaps even a top five under the right circumstances.
“There’s no need for me to force a hole, end up tearing up a racecar,” Wallace said, crediting Jeff Burton for reminding him to race within the equipment given. “I’m getting this opportunity because people believe in me and [have] seen my talents coming up. I have to go out there, just back that up, show them I can manage and I belong in the series.”
Sponsorship more than any other factor will determine whether Wallace belongs here long-term. But it’s clear this audition is likely the final one to get any companies out there in position to support him.
There’s a whole lot of people out there hoping he succeeds.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. With the second fence climb in three years, NASCAR has to find a way for stepped-up security at racetracks so it doesn’t happen again. What became a national curiosity would have been a national tragedy of epic proportions if that guy fell from the fence onto the racetrack and into oncoming traffic. Also, the sport faces legitimate questions of communication. Why wasn’t the tower alerted in time to put the race under caution? (The only legitimate reason why you don’t throw the yellow flag there.) Communication here was so bad, Dover track officials in the media center were also unaware and skeptical of the situation until video started popping up on Twitter. They shouldn’t have been caught off guard like that and we can’t have this situation happen a third time. NASCAR is playing with fire.
- Jimmie Johnson and the NASCAR Overtime line. I already wrote earlier this week that I think some fans’ bias of Johnson is coming to the surface over a controversial finish at Dover that really wasn’t so controversial. That said… all races are better when they can finish under green. I think the OT line is a great way to try and bring clarity and it’s important to keep drivers safe. But I’m beginning to wonder if part of the beauty of NASCAR used to be finishing every race under green, no matter the circumstances. Can we find a compromise to do that, especially with a traveling safety crew and justify the additional risk added in?
- I’ll do a midseason report next week but Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson, and Johnson at Dover felt like a playoff preview. With Team Penske crashing to earth in recent weeks, that trio stands out above the rest. No one is even within 100 points of Truex and Larson in the standings while Johnson’s three wins lead the series.
- Speaking of Penske, Joey Logano isn’t guaranteed a playoff spot after the encumbered Richmond victory and he’s fallen like a rock. With three wrecks in four races, he’s now 15th on the grid, 61 points ahead of Trevor Bayne and needs to be careful. Did NASCAR find a gray area violation that has sent this two-car organization back in terms of speed?