During the 2020 season, Bubba Wallace and Richard Petty Motorsports have been one of the most improved duos in the NASCAR Cup Series field. However, despite that jump in performance, Wallace’s future isn’t necessarily solidified in Petty blue.
Wallace is a free agent heading into the 2021 season, and last week, Forbes reported Andrew Murstein, co-owner of RPM, offered Wallace partial ownership of the team should he stay with the No. 43 Chevrolet. But with options on the table, the 26-year-old is taking his time to make the right decision for himself.
Ahead of his ninth-place finish at Michigan International Speedway on Saturday, Wallace spoke to Frontstretch.com to discuss his team’s improvements in 2020, his confidence heading to the racetrack and how RPM has “half the puzzle” when it comes to getting him to re-sign.
Dustin Albino, Frontstretch: This season, you’ve been in or around the top 20 in points most of the summer. How would you gauge the season thus far?
Bubba Wallace: It’s definitely been a lot better, definitely had some improvements from the previous two years. Looking at when social media channels put up the playoff standings, we were usually on the third or fourth page, not even having a fighting chance. Not saying that we’re out of it, but we have a really big uphill battle to get to be part of the playoffs. But to say that we have that chance is definitely a testament to our guys at the shop, our A team and B team that are at the track each and every weekend.
It’s been good. We’ve struggled the last couple weeks. I feel like the last month we weren’t really hitting on much and couldn’t put good races together. All in all, it’s been a solid foundation and start to the season to build off of. We really look back and hang our heads on the two Charlotte [Motor Speedway] races back-to-back where we had failures. That was unfortunate because I think the points scenario would look way different. If I remember correctly, we were running top 10 in both races when we had those problems. We’ll just continue to go on. We have [five] races left and give it all we got.
Albino: Compared to the past two years, where have you seen the biggest improvements with Richard Petty Motorsports?
Wallace: I think improvement in the cars, getting better equipment, more efficient equipment. Me improving behind the wheel and doing a better job away from the racetrack: studying, watching film. Jerry’s [Baxter, crew chief] been on me about watching previous races, watching SMT. He usually sends me a long worded text message of things to look for and focus on going into each race. He’s just been more vocal and pushing me to be better.
That’s one of the main reasons I hired Jerry, not just because we know each other so well, but what he does to push me as a driver to be better. It’s really a team effort from everyone at the shop, from people at the shop to people at the racetrack to me. Just trying to do better and produce better races.
Albino: What is it about Jerry that gets the best out of you?
Wallace: We just have a really good relationship. We understand each other. We know when it’s a business and we know when it’s time to have fun. We can have those tough conversations that a new crew chief and driver relationship can’t normally have and you have to tip-toe around. We can get through those things and make things more beneficial for our team and look out for each other’s best interest.
Jerry’s just an all-around good guy, fun guy. It’s fun to push his buttons as well to make him better.
Albino: RPM has the alliance with Richard Childress Racing, who has also had an uptick in performance from last year. How much does that spread down to you?
Wallace: They’re the parent team and it trickles down to us to get better data to eventually put into our racecars to be better. As an [alliance], RCR and RPM, we’ve been working really well together and putting some good races together. It’s been a lot of fun going to the racetrack this year and having some sort of chance, whereas last year you didn’t know where you were going to run but you kind of knew where you were going to run. This year, it’s like, ‘Alright, can we go out and run top 15 again?’ and usually that happens.
The last couple of weeks, we’ve been top 20 and a little bit behind that. We’ve got to do better. I was very vocal about that with Jerry — we’ve got to unload closer to where we want to be because we’ve been missing it and not really hitting on it throughout the race. It’s a valuable team effort and we’ll continue to push the envelope.
Albino: Last year, you said a top 20 was a successful day. What do you consider a successful day now?
Wallace: I think just improving each and every week: top 15s, we’ve had some top-10 runs or just outside of the top 10. Those moments for us are really good.
You have to break it down. You look at the top four teams, all have four cars a part of their organization except for Team Penske, so that’s 15th place right there. We’re still behind some of the teams [after] that. Looking at how we can be better and bring those good runs together and good finishes, it definitely speaks to what we’re doing back at the shop to prep our cars and beat some of the bigger cars.
Albino: Because you’ve had solid results in 2020, how much more confidence do you have going into a race?
Wallace: A lot more. You’re learning something each and every race, each and every lap. I think this will be my [sixth] race at Michigan now, so I think just going back on last year’s notes and the year prior and using all of that. Hell, I found myself watching the Truck race from the year I won in 2017 last night, just watching that as a confidence booster and seeing what was different. Then, fast forwarding to last year’s Cup race here and watching it.
You’re always learning and figuring out things to try. That definitely brings confidence, knowing, ‘Alright, those guys are running there, so if they can do it I can do it.’
Albino: We’ve seen RPM add Cash App as additional funding recently. How much sponsorship has the team added from last year?
Wallace: Yeah, for sure. Look at the PSA deal we signed with Beats. That was definitely cool to be aligned with a company like that. That was a personal service deal, but still is funding. We have some other things that are on the hook that have really good potential.
I think everything that we’re doing on and off the racetrack has helped, we just have to keep getting better on the racetrack to help seal the deal.
Albino: How much of a challenge has it been to focus on racing this season with the position you’re in?
Wallace: Through the thick of it, it actually doesn’t seem like it was too bad. The last couple weeks have been quiet and calmed down a lot and that’s been good. It’s allowed me to really focus on what we need to do here. I thought I handled it the best way I could. Some of our best races came under that pressure and continuing to do all of that. Maybe we need to be at the front of headlines every day to have better races.
Albino: Whether it’s what’s happened on or off the track, do you feel like your stock has ever been higher as a driver?
Wallace: No, I think it’s continuing to rise. A lot of brands and just the nation is taking a culture shift and wanting to be a part of that. It’s not like I wanted to be in this spot, I was just kind of put there and I’ve tried to do my best at managing the path that I’ve been put on and dealing with whatever is thrown at me in the most professional way possible.
I know there’s been a lot of drama and whatnot, but it’s all part of the process and all part of the story to get to where we need to be. Winning races is at the top of my list. There’s nothing more important to me right now as getting out there and being competitive and winning races, making a name on the track, just as I’ve made my name off the racetrack as well.
Albino: The report came out last Sunday of RPM offering you partial ownership of the team. What would it mean to be a partial owner of the same team as Richard Petty?
Wallace: I think it’s different than buying into the company and being a part that way. You have to really go through and figure out all the details and understand what it really means under these circumstances.
RPM made a huge commitment in me back in 2017 to get me the opportunity to fill in (for Aric Almirola) and eventually signing me on in 2018. They’ve definitely supported me every step of the way in my Cup career and I’m very appreciative of that. It’s a contract year; we’ve got to get things in line, we’ve got to get things running better. We’ve had those tough conversations with the people at RPM to get things in place for next year, so it’s a matter of finalizing everything, getting things underway and figuring out what’s the best option for us.
Albino: Since you’ve been at RPM, how hands on has Andrew Murstein been with the team?
Wallace: He’s been there, he’s been sending messages. It’s definitely ramped up in the last couple of weeks to just figure out what’s the exact direction we want to take the team and get it on new levels.
Albino: Do you have a way you’re leaning toward for the 2021 season?
Wallace: No, everything is still up in the air. At the end of the day, you’ve got to figure out what’s best for yourself and move forward with that option. There’s still a lot of things to be ironed out and hopefully, soon we’ll have a decision to make.
Albino: When do you hope to have a decision by?
Wallace: My decisions don’t usually come about until an hour before climbing in the car for Daytona, so anytime in the next couple of days, weeks is a hell of an improvement from years past.
Albino: For you, what ultimately goes into making that decision; is it fast cars with the capability of winning or setting yourself up for the future?
Wallace: It’s a mixture. Being a part of a team that is like family, I’m very vocal about that. Not just an asset or liability to a team and just a driver and showing up to the racetrack, being a part of the family, being a part of the shop employees and having that relationship is very important.
Also, we have to have winning racecars and the capability of winning. We’ve got half the puzzle there. We’ve got the great family at RPM, we just have to get our cars better and more competitive to seal that deal. There’s a lot of work on that side of things to really solidify the future.