Did You Notice? … Bubba Wallace hasn’t led a lap in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series this season? Wallace’s 2019 filled with frustration appeared to boil over at Kyle Busch this past weekend at Watkins Glen. His anger over on-track contact caused him to spin Busch out, then erupt in a fiery conversation with Frontstretch’s Dustin Albino.
“He just ran me the f*ck over, that’s exactly what happened,” Wallace said post-race. “I don’t care if I’m two years in, rookie stripes or what, but I’m going to get my respect on the track and I don’t care who it is. I won’t put up with no sh*t, so I flat out wrecked his ass.”
He hasn’t backed down from that stance, frustrated over the way his former boss raced him. But Wallace has to have a little extra disgust at the way his year’s been going at Richard Petty Motorsports. Only he, Landon Cassill and Corey Lajoie have started every Cup race this season without leading a lap.
FEWEST LAPS LED – 2019 FULL-TIME CUP COMPETITORS
Bubba Wallace 0
Landon Cassill 0
Corey Lajoie 0
Certainly, equipment and sponsorship for Wallace has been a major concern. Their alliance with Richard Childress Racing places them with the weakest manufacturer this season (Chevrolet) and a struggling team. No car aligned with RCR is in position to make the playoffs; in fact, they don’t have a single car inside the top 20 in points. Austin Dillon, sitting 22nd, is the best they can do and he’s a whopping 134 points behind Jimmie Johnson for 16th.
Financially, while Richard Petty Motorsports has picked up the option for Wallace through 2020 they’re still putting patchwork sponsorship together for 2019. If not for World Wide Technology stepping up after Click ‘N’ Close left the program, who knows if this organization would even be running full-time? Co-owner Andrew Murstein, who has made millions off taxi medallions and advertising, has seemed more hesitant to self-fund this venture in recent seasons.
Wallace backers will also point to one other factor outside his control: bad racing luck. The 2018 Daytona 500 runner-up created raised expectations he has failed to replicate on superspeedways ever since. An early wreck had him limping through the 2019 season opener; then, at Talladega in April, he wrecked just 10 laps in. A 15th at Daytona last month also serves as his lone top-15 performance of the year. Add in his now-public struggles with depression and it’s been a tumultuous time.
But at some point, one of the sport’s most refreshingly honest, unique and popular drivers must have his performance judged on the racetrack. An average finish of 25.5 is actually a small step back from 2018 (-1.0). Last season, Wallace had two top 10s by this point in the year; he’s yet to earn one thus far in 2019. Five lead-lap finishes in 22 starts, while a slight improvement percentage-wise is miniscule compared to the sport’s top contenders.
Those numbers also pale in comparison to the car’s former driver, Aric Almirola. In 2017, the lone year Almirola drover for RPM as a single-car program, he earned six top-10 finishes and an average finish of 18.8 in just 29 starts. (A fractured vertebrae left Almirola out of the car for two months). From 2012-2016, Almirola drove for RPM as part of a two-car team and never had an average finish lower than 23.3. He even won once, at Daytona in July 2014 and squeaked into the playoffs that year.
Wallace, due to his status as the sport’s lone African-American driver, often gets unfairly compared to another popular minority racer: Danica Patrick. But even the lone full-time NASCAR woman in Cup this decade showed improvement in her second year, jumping from an average finish of 26.1 to 23.7. She had far better equipment but also showcased a more well-rounded skill set, becoming competitive at short tracks like Martinsville along with the road courses. (Ironically, Almirola replaced Patrick in 2018 and quickly ran circles around her performance at the No. 10 car, raising more questions about Patrick’s stock car talent.)
So call it a sophomore slump, bump in the road, whatever but the expected development of Wallace hasn’t happened. Maybe it’ll eventually come with this program. But when your one must-see moment of 2019 is spinning out a wounded Kyle Busch mid-pack, well, it’s that much harder to earn the on-track respect Wallace so desperately craves at the sport’s top level.
Did You Notice? … Alex Bowman hasn’t earned a top-10 finish or led a lap since winning at Chicagoland Speedway the end of June? Bowman went from one of the hottest drivers on the Cup Series circuit to virtually invisible during the last five races.
Bowman’s average finish of 17.2 during that stretch trails only William Byron (11.4) at Hendrick Motorsports. But it’s a rough time to take a step back when the team is still seeking a 2020 primary sponsor replacement for Nationwide Insurance. A playoff spot may be assured but the team appears to have lost their way since reaching the summit.
Sometimes, you expend so much energy to get there you wind exhaling, stop for a second and suddenly find yourself behind. Bowman worked his butt off and came so frustratingly close with three straight top-two finishes earlier this season before breaking through. Sometimes, the win comes as a relief after all that but it also leaves you having to refocus your goals. They’re clearly still in the process of adjusting over at the No. 88.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Remember Watkins Glen for Daniel Suarez and Clint Bowyer. Suarez, who had two career top-five finishes at the Glen in two previous starts, went MIA for much of the weekend. A 17th-place finish with no stage points was crushing to his playoff hopes, dropping him 23 points behind the cutline. A normal run there for him would have easily allowed him to leapfrog Johnson and Ryan Newman for 16th place. Now? He’s behind the eight ball with four tracks remaining that aren’t all exactly in his wheelhouse.
- Meanwhile, Bowyer earned seven stage points, then fought back from his own track position troubles to finish 20th. That kept his gap at 12 over Johnson and Newman, keeping him on the right side of the bubble for a postseason bid that could make or break his future at Stewart-Haas Racing. Will a playoff miss for Suarez leave him more vulnerable with Cole Custer knocking on the door? We’re about to find out.
- You think Jimmie Johnson doesn’t have the drive anymore? Watch his post-race interview after Watkins Glen once he tangled with Ryan Blaney and then talk to me. Johnson still may miss the playoffs midseason after switching crew chiefs and is mired in the worst slump of his career. But if he’s going down, boy is that guy going down fighting.
- Team Penske flat out dominated the June race at Michigan International Speedway with Joey Logano. He led 163 of 200 laps as all three cars finished inside the top 10. But a funny thing happened since then with one of the sport’s two dominant programs: they’ve been shut out of victory lane. With Joe Gibbs Racing showcasing their speed again in recent weeks this weekend’s Michigan race is crucial for Penske to reassert themselves.