The 2017 NASCAR season was the end of an era, on a number of different levels. Actually, the season began with one of its most familiar faces calling it quits before the green flag even fell over Speedweeks. The year finished in a similar vein, as the driving careers of two drivers who rose to prominence in tandem came to a close, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth walked off into the sunset – one on his own terms, the other rudely ushered out the door. Danica Patrick bid a tearful farewell at Homestead, and it was confirmed this week by Chip Ganassi that she won’t be driving for him at the Daytona 500 – or the Indianapolis 500 either.
So who will carry the mantle for a sport that has in recent years, has seen the departure of Motorsports Mount Rushmore worthy drivers Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, NASCAR’s favorite son – in addition to a pair of drivers who were and still could be perennial championship contenders? Hendrick Motorsports’ roster seems to have the most buzz about it, with Chase Elliott still seeking his first win, along with William Byron and Alex Bowman in their respective rides. While the No. 24 and 88 no doubt have their share of history in the sport, there is another one that stands taller than either – No. 43.
Enter Darrell Wallace Jr., who will be taking over the controls of the Richard Petty Motorsports machines for 2018. Wallace performed admirably while subbing for the injured Aric Almirola this summer, helping him finally land a seat in the top-tier series. The 24-year old driver has six wins in the Camping World Truck Series, and was fourth in XFINITY Series points this season when his Roush Fenway Racing ride was parked due to lack of sponsorship after Pocono. In a one-off Truck ride this summer, he won at Michigan holding off Christopher Bell and Kyle Busch in his MDM Motorsports Chevrolet.
On the surface, this ride is an opportunity for a myriad of reasons for both driver and team.
For Wallace, he finally has a full-time ride – period. As a driver with proven success in the Truck Series, great for a sound bite, and an engaging social media member, it always seemed a mystery as to why things weren’t progressing fast enough for him. In an era where veteran drivers are taking massive pay cuts – or simply walking away – the dollars that drive business in racing just aren’t there right now as they were in the past. Richard Petty Motorsports is a prime example of this continued battle. It isn’t often you see a car owner engaged in tit for tat with the marketing director of a sponsor over Twitter – or anywhere for that matter. Quite a bit different when the owner in this instance is Richard Petty – as was the case this summer when sponsor Smithfield Foods was called out by The King for reneging on a verbal commitment to the No. 43 team – albeit while under different leadership.
Sponsorship for 2018 is starting to shape up however. Smithfield apparently will be aligned with the No. 43 in some capacity, with mortgage company Click n’ Close and STP picking up a few races. Military-themed veteran-owned clothing company Grunt Style will be on the car as well, as will the United States Air Force. As the only African-American driver to have competed at this level in over a decade, it would seem this would be the perfect opportunity to bring in a prominent full-time sponsor that might be new to the sport. A proven talent with tremendous potential coupled with a living legend who is still at the track almost every weekend, would seem to be the perfect combination for fans and a sponsor to get behind – but is the team capable of backing up that promise with performance?
In recent years, that answer has been no. It’s been three seasons since the last time the No. 43 went to Victory Lane at Daytona in 2014 with Almirola, which was also the team’s only playoff appearance since its inception. Their technical alliance with Roush Fenway Racing had them running about as good as the Roush cars were the second half of the season – which with a few exceptions left a bit to be desired.
As the RPM sign was being removed Thursday from the former Robert Yates Racing shops that they are vacating, it was announced they will be switching to Chevrolet Camaro ZL1s for 2018, ending their nine-year partnership with Ford. A technical alliance will be formed with Richard Childress Racing, which works out well given the vacancy at RCR left by Paul Menard who will be now driving for the Wood Brothers.
The last two seasons that the No. 43 was on the side of a Chevrolet, it ended up fourth in points, and winning Petty’s seventh Championship. Granted that was almost 40 years and four generations of car ago, but the buzz around the new ZL1 Camaro that the Chevrolet teams will be fielding should give the bow-tie faithful some hope. With a nose that is perhaps even more angular and Transformery than even the Camry it was intended to catch up with, it might help give RPM that extra edge it seemed to be lacking while running Fords the past few years.
While some try and down play the fact that Wallace is an African-American driver, it’s a point that needs to be made. NASCAR continues to fight the notion that it is an exclusionary sport, and only white men can compete. That’s simply not the case, and a prominent driver like Wallace helps to illustrate that. Wallace didn’t get No. 43 because of his race – he earned it through results and by keeping after it regardless of how many doors closed, teams shut down, or pit road speeding penalties at Pocono he endured.
The only black driver to have won a race in NASCAR before Wallace was Wendell Scott, which was over 50 years ago. Coincidentally, if you look at Scott’s number on some of his old cars, his No. 34 script looked awfully close to The King’s No. 43. Wallace won a truck race at Martinsville in 2013 driving a No. 34 truck that was painted as a tribute to Scott’s No. 34 following Scott’s selection to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Richard Petty’s cousin and crew chief Dale Inman told of how their hauler had a drawer they called “Wendell’s Drawer.” Scott was free to help himself to whatever was in it.
Come 2018, all the drawers at Richard Petty Motorsports will be open for Wallace, as he tries to equal a feat in the Cup Series set back on Dec. 1st, 1963.