Bubba Wallace’s decision to leave Richard Petty Motorsports ahead of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series was surely a difficult one, an emotional call months in the making.
But look beyond emotions and it’s clearly the right decision to make.
Once a driver struggling to find sponsorship, Wallace has gone on a sponsor shopping frenzy this summer. The Tennessean has signed on brands like Cash App, Columbia and DoorDash while garnering an endorsement deal with Beats by Dre.
This has been Wallace’s best Cup season to date, with five of his nine top-10s and a 20.2 average finish that’s nearly four spots better than his 2019 mark. But those results wouldn’t have been enough to garner Wallace the support — it’s also surely been tied to his social justice efforts off of the track.
He could take the funding and use it to help RPM in its efforts to rebuild. But the safer bet for both himself and his newfound supporters is to try to make a splash in free agency now.
Because his peak time to capitalize could be short.
Wallace has spent years working to get to this point, steadily progressing through NASCAR’s ladder system despite minimal funding. Three solid years in what was then the K&N Pro Series East led Wallace to the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2013. In that top-tier equipment, he secured five wins in two years and finished third in the 2014 championship.
The opportunity for a full-time move up never materialized at Toyota, but Wallace found new hope with Roush Fenway Racing (RFR) in the Xfinity Series. He never had a stand-out moment, but put together two serviceable years and was fourth in the standings midway through a third when his No. 6 team was shuttered in the summer of 2017.
Had it not been for an unfortunate injury to Aric Almirola at Kansas Speedway in that year’s spring Cup race, RFR could have marked the end of Wallace’s career. But he secured a four-race stint with RPM while Almirola recovered from a broken back and impressed with an 11th-place run at Kentucky Speedway. RPM deserves credit for seeing his potential, because that stint led Wallace back to the No. 43 team full-time in 2018, where he immediately finished second in the Daytona 500.
That run was symbolic of his career to date in NASCAR’s top two tiers — close to a breakout performance, but unable to score the sort of needle-moving result that can land him in the limelight.
It’s not entirely fair to attribute that lack of a breakthrough to Wallace. Save perhaps for a strong 2015 campaign with RFR for Chris Buescher, results from both organizations show that Wallace’s time at both the Xfinity and Cup levels largely fell with teams a step below the top of the ladder in their respective tours. Whether he’s a premier talent remains to be seen because he hasn’t truly had an opportunity to prove either way.
Wallace’s lack of a breakout result left him in a precarious spot entering 2020. His team was nervous about sponsorship moving forward, leaving Wallace due for a potential drop into free agency. But Wallace quickly found himself embroiled in a much bigger cultural discussion.
The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor drove American society into a full-on movement against racial injustice over the early summer, compelling Wallace to speak up and lead the charge within the NASCAR realm.
Efforts from Wallace saw his fellow drivers create a video speaking out against racial discrimination. NASCAR banned the Confederate flag from its facilities. Wallace donned a Black Lives Matter shirt and even drove a black No. 43 Chevrolet supporting the movement at Martinsville Speedway.
All of this happened while most other sports were still shut down for COVID-19, making Wallace a leading Black figure in the sporting world. Seemingly overnight, the third-year driver became a global cultural brand, garnering both the love and hate that come with it.
The noose incident saw the hatred. When a garage pull rope fashioned in the shape of a noose during the Fall 2019 race weekend was identified and reported in his stall in the height of the BLM movement in June, Wallace found himself taking flack from thousands, including the President. Never mind that he hadn’t seen it himself due to the pandemic race protocol.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Wallace saw support ring in from people like LeBron James and Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson. Formula 1 star Lewis Hamilton offered support for him before leading his own anti-discrimination charge in the world’s most popular motorsport tour.
The love and vitriol combined into a whirlwind of attention that have helped make Wallace a cultural leader for diversity. Important for the future of his racing career, the spotlight also brought major brands that are eager to be affiliated with Wallace while he works both on and off-track.
That places Wallace in a position similar to Danica Patrick, Juan Pablo Montoya and others in previous years. Win or lose, he’s going to be among the star attractions for the series for the foreseeable future.
But Wallace has years of stock car experience that those others didn’t, including six wins at the Truck level. That gives him stronger potential to make trips to victory lane — an accomplishment his newfound sponsors are presumably eager to be associated with.
Do they need him to win in order to gain value from their deals? Not at all. Being associated with Wallace at a time when many consumers are seeking to support brands engaged in diversity and social justice efforts is already a win for most involved.
But Wallace can’t be certain of how long that support will stick around. Other “star of the moment” drivers have seen their sparkle fade after a few years, or sometimes less, of pedestrian results.
The easiest way for Wallace to incentivize his supporters to stick with him for the long term is to win, and as quickly as possible.
RPM could eventually return to that point, but the organization isn’t positioned with any guarantee to do so yet. Other rides at companies that would seem to be a step up remain open for the taking, though most are denying involvement at the moment.
Hendrick Motorsports has an entry remaining open with Jimmie Johnson’s impending retirement. Chip Ganassi Racing has yet to fill the No. 42 currently being driven in a lame-duck partial season by Matt Kenseth. Stewart-Haas Racing hasn’t confirmed Clint Bowyer’s return to the No. 14, though the organization has openly stated it envisions all four drivers returning for 2021.
Wallace isn’t the only driver on the market. Erik Jones remains unconfirmed for a 2021 drive, while Kyle Larson’s name has filled the rumor mill while he continues to win dirt races en masse, though he’s yet to be reinstated by NASCAR. Surging Xfinity stars Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric could also factor into the silly season discussion.
But Wallace’s apparent funding makes him an attractive prospect, as does the value that could come if he can pull off a trailblazing victory.
Leaving RPM places him one step closer to doing just that in the short term. Now we all wait to see where he lands.