Finally. Finally. Finally.
It took a long time, but Darrell Wallace Jr. is finally getting the call to race in NASCAR’s top division. Filling in for Aric Almirola in the famed No. 43, the move is certainly a powerful one as the sport looks to take advantage of having its first African-American driver compete in its premier series since 2006.
Yeah, it’s been a while.
As NASCAR attempts to shy away from stereotypes with a diversity program on both the competition and business sides of the sport, Wallace’s announcement is just the latest substantial move that is needed for it to move away from being considered a sport where rednecks go ’round in circles.
This is no joke, either. NASCAR needs these drivers to be successful, especially Wallace, considering the sport’s limited list of African-American drivers.
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Q: With Darrell Wallace Jr. making his Cup Series debut, how important is it for NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program? – Kelsey R., Providence, Rhode Island
A: This is one of the best things to happen in NASCAR in a long time.
After Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his retirement, fans were in a Debbie Downer mindset. They were depressed, and rightfully so. The driver they’ve invested their time and money on is hanging up his helmet at the end of the year.
Well, think of all the young talent taking NASCAR by storm. In addition to Suarez, Larson and Wallace, there are plenty of aggressive, budding drivers who will step up to the plate and capture plenty of checkered flags.
For Wallace, the call couldn’t come at a better time. Just moments after the announcement that he would go Cup racing with Richard Petty Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing officially said it will shut down its No. 6 XFINITY Series team, due to a lack of sponsorship.
“First off, thank you to everybody at Roush Fenway for the opportunity,” Wallace said in a Tuesday morning teleconference. “Jack [Roush] has been heavily involved in this program, both Cup and XFINITY, trying to turn that program, turn the team around really to get it back on its feet, get it back to where it was.
“It’s been a tough battle. But we can say this year we’ve made a lot of gains. A lot of sleepless nights have gone into it to make these cars faster, to get our Ford Mustangs and Fusions back on track, lead laps, win stages, win races.”
The opening for the No. 43 just happened to be ideal for Wallace, but what is more important is what happens to his career after this stint with RPM.
No matter what happens, though, this is a major step in the right direction for NASCAR, a mostly Caucasian sport that still sees fans bring Confederate flags to the racetrack, even to the northern races. Finally, NASCAR has a driver who can lead the diversity movement and feels comfortable doing so.
This is just the latest big move for NASCAR, which saw Jusan Hamilton become the first black race director in the XFINITY Series in late March. Now NASCAR has two African Americans for people to look up to, who are not only role models, but who are prime examples of the sport’s efforts to become more diverse.
“Over the years, I’ve gotten to know him,” Hamilton, NASCAR Manager, Racing Operations & Event Management, told Frontstretch. “As someone who’s come through the [Drive for Diversity] program, I’m very familiar with him from when he first came in to where he is now.”
Hamilton called Wallace’s next step “another great win for our program.”
With Wallace’s advancement to NASCAR’s spotlight, it makes the diversity program look like one that went from “OK this is a nice try” before Larson stepped up to the Cup Series, to “Wow, this is really a great program that’s changing lives.” There is even a pit crew combine that Goodyear partners with to help diversify the over-the-wall folks.
“For someone who’s from a diverse background and raced at a young age, I think the great thing is guys like Darrell, Daniel and Kyle Larson are great role models and examples to young kids out there,” Hamilton said. “It’s a sport that I’ve always believed since a young age is open to everyone who has a passion for it and I think this is a great example of it. Darrell reaching the highest level this weekend is just another example to look forward to.”
Just imagine what a successful stint in the Cup Series by Wallace can do for the sport’s diversity efforts. It could very well be the start of something special.
Q: Kasey Kahne is losing Great Clips as a sponsor. What is the case for Hendrick Motorsports to not buy out his contract? – Christian A., San Diego
A: The biggest blow to Kasey Kahne came when longtime primary sponsor Farmer’s Insurance announced it would be splitting with the team at the end of 2017.
Farmer’s Insurance originally partnered with Kahne when he made the move from Red Bull Racing to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, splashing its paint scheme on the No. 5 ride for 22 races. But in 2015, that number went down from 20-plus events to 12, with 13 in 2016 and 12 this year.
In addition to the insurance firm leaving Kahne’s side, another longtime sponsor, Great Clips, announced it would also terminate its partnership with the driver once a budding championship contender for Evernham Motorsports.
The Hendrick Motorsports marketing staff are now left scrambling for sponsorship as Kahne still has one year left on his contract.
As the team evaluates his status moving forward, a key question will be whether the team can find funding for at least 22 races. That is assuming his other sponsors will return. That’s a chunk of cash to find for a driver that the organization likely will not re-sign after next season, given it has XFINITY Series rookie William Byron waiting to get the call to compete in Cup within a few years (and 2019 would probably be the perfect time to do just that).
Kahne is still a talented driver — he always has been — but he never reached his full potential. Besides an outstanding 2006 season, which witnessed the fitness guru jumping around in Victory Lane an impressive six times, he has never won more than two contests in a season.
I love racing and still have a ton of drive. All I want to do is perform and win again. I'm not done yet!
— Kasey Kahne (@kaseykahne) June 5, 2017
Kahne sits in exactly the same position he was in after 13 races last year — 20th in points. However, this time around, he has three top 10s compared to four in 2016.
His success — or the lack thereof at times — can be determined by his popularity, which during his rookie year, escalated him to be named Fox’s NASCAR’s “sexiest driver.” Yeah, remember when that was a thing?
But Kahne is still a valuable asset to the Hendrick camp. He is considered a veteran of the garage, with his 500th career Cup start coming later this October at Kansas Speedway. If sponsorship is found, it would be hard to kick out the driver of the No. 5 car, no matter how well or how poorly he performs.