“Hey man, would you ever go Cup racing?”
That’s how Bubba Wallace pitched his former Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series crew chief Jerry Baxter if he would join Richard Petty Motorsports over the offseason to lead the famed No. 43 team.
Wallace, 26, comes off the 2019 season where he finished 28th in the championship standings for a second consecutive year. Last year, led by veteran first-time crew chief Derek Stamets, a change needed to be made to help elevate RPM, though Stamets was thrown to the wolves late in the 2018 offseason.
“One thing that we were lacking last year was just that leadership role,” Wallace said on Wednesday (Feb. 12) at Daytona 500 Media Day. “Everything else, Derek did a tremendous job stepping up to the plate because that was kind of thrown on Derek last year with Drew [Blickensderfer] departing and Derek coming in and delivering what he had.
“We always got our cars super good to race with. There was maybe a handful of races we didn’t, but when it came to, ‘Hey man, go out there and deliver and do the best you can,’ we just missed that aspect from Derek. I wanted to bring Jerry in to bring that leadership role to the team.”
Wallace is no stranger to Baxter. While driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series during the 2013 and 2014 seasons, the duo recorded five victories and 26 top-10 finishes in 44 starts. Driving the No. 54 truck in 2014, Wallace finished third in points, only behind Matt Crafton, who repeated as champion and good friend Ryan Blaney.
But the relationship between Wallace and Baxter wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows, as the two were often arguing on the radio, knowing they were getting the best out of each other.
“Charlotte 2014, we about fought each other,” Wallace said. “And Michigan, when he ran us out of gas when Kyle [Busch] ran out of fuel five laps early. When the [No.] 51 is on the track, the [No.] 54 is on the racetrack and we’re built in the same shop, so I’m sure we have the same pickup issues that they were having.
“We had like an 11-second lead at Michigan and they run us out of fuel. It wasn’t a friendly day inside the [No.] 54 hauler. We went at it, everything but fighting. Look where we are now.”
They now find themselves realigned at the top echelon of motorsports six years later. Wallace confirmed it was his idea to get the band back together, per se.
“I tossed a bone out there to him, ‘Hey man, would you ever go Cup racing? He’s like, ‘For you, I would,'” Wallace added. “He really loves Trucks and he really loves having Sundays off to go out on his boat, and so I told him, like five times, ‘Hey man, no more Sundays off, you get like two and it’s a long season, are you sure? He’s like, ‘yes.’ I texted him before we flew down here [last] Thursday night and said, ‘Hey man, if you’re scared don’t get on the plane.’”
Baxter got on the team charter and set out for the two Daytona 500 practice sessions last Saturday (Feb. 8). In the final practice prior to qualifying, it was the No. 43 that sat atop the speed chart, with a lap of 196.172 mph.
The following day, Wallace turned the 32nd quickest time in qualifying, rolling off 16th in the second Bluegreen Vacations Duel on Thursday (Feb. 13).
Wallace admits that though the two haven’t worked together in a handful of seasons, it’s a relationship that has continued to evolve.
“The longest we would go without talking to each other was probably a month,” Wallace said. “Whether it was picking on each other or, ‘Hey man, good luck in your race today, don’t suck. I’m taking your boat out.’ That’s what he would say to me because I would keep my boat at his house so it’s kind of free range when he wants to take it.
“It’s cool to have that friendship off the track and be that guy that you can talk to about anything and now he’s moving into the crew chief role, again, for us and he’s doing a heck of a job so far. We’ve only had a handful of laps on track together, but I feel like we’re going to shape up to be a good duo and lead our team to a lot of success this year.”
Success has been hard to come by for RPM in recent years. However, Wallace has had a handful of breakout performances in the two years he’s been a full-time driver at the Cup level.