Last week Darrell Wallace Jr announced his decision to leave Richard Petty Motorsports at the conclusion of the 2020 season. It was a decision that many weren't surprised by but to an RPM fan like myself, it left a bitter feeling and made us question Bubba’s loyalty.
I know many of you will say It’s a business and there isn’t much room for loyalty and typically I’d agree. in this case, I feel it runs deeper. The 2020 season has been the most unique in NASCAR’s history. Along with the rest of the world, they have dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve also dealt with trying to address racial inequality. While that has been a challenge for all sports, you could easily argue that NASCAR has had the toughest time balancing being more inclusive without alienating old school fans. At the center of that movement in NASCAR has been Wallace. He is the sport's only full-time African American driver. He called for NASCAR to ban the confederate flag and NASCAR enhanced their enforcement of flag policies. The decision has been met with a lot of pushback from longtime fans and that was made very clear when Wallace was booed at this year’s All-Star Race.
Richard Petty is the owner/face of Richard Petty Motorsports. His resume doesn’t need to be listed here. He’s considered by many to be the greatest driver in the history of the sport. He is 83 years old and is fairly outspoken when it comes to political issues in our country. He’s very publicly supported Donald Trump. Petty publicly criticized NFL star Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee during the national anthem. I don’t bring any of this up to take sides on these issues. I mention this because one could assume that Bubba Wallace and Richard Petty probably don’t see eye to eye on a lot of these issues. Despite this, Petty allowed Wallace to run a Black Lives Matter scheme during this year’s Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500. The scheme only became possible after Blue-Emu dropped Wallace and RPM when Wallace quit during a Pro Invitational Series event during the height of the pandemic. Sponsorship losses hurt every team but those losses are magnified for a smaller team like RPM.
Many people have forgotten Wallace has been under fire for behavior in the past. The most noteworthy being his now-infamous encounter with Alex Bowman after last year’s Bank of America ROVAL 400. Despite plenty of public outcries, RPM stayed quiet and supported their driver. There are several other incidents I could list to show that Wallace hasn’t always been the easiest to support, I’m not here to put Wallace down, though. Richard Petty, and company and have always done their best to publicly support Wallace. That became abundantly clear when Petty flew to Talladega this summer to support Wallace after a noose was found in his garage stall the week prior. Luckily it was a garage pull down that had been there for at least a year prior. The NASCAR community was thankful for the false alarm in terms of meaning any harm towards Wallace. Richard Petty’s track prescience though was significant. He hadn’t been to a racetrack since before the pandemic and to my knowledge hasn’t been back since. While the social climate in NASCAR must be incredibly difficult for Wallace to navigate through, it also likely hasn’t been easy for Petty, who no doubt has lost some fans because of his support of Wallace this season.
Combine all of this with the fact that the momentum felt like it was finally starting to turn for Wallace and RPM this season, at the time of this article, the team is 23rd in standings and they spent most of the 2020 summer right around the “playoff bubble”.
This was a great improvement for a team that finished 28th in the standings in 2019. Darrell has added plenty of personal sponsorship in recent months; companies like DoorDash, Cash App, Columbia, have all signed on to sponsor RPM via Wallace. I can’t help but feel that Wallace is doing the wrong thing by leaving RPM at this time. I understand he has to do what is best for his career as we all do...but to leave after all that has taken place this season just leaves a bitter taste in a lot of fan’s mouths. To leave during this time feels like he lacks loyalty towards Petty and the team. They went out of the way for him during a time when it wasn’t easy to do so.
Couldn’t he have stayed one more season with all the funding and see what happens? I’ve heard people say that Wallace couldn’t take that chance and that he has to snag a top ride while he can. Well, money talks in this sport, and with the kind of money Wallace is rumored to be able to bring on with his sponsors, there will always be teams willing to make room for him.
How much longer does Kurt Busch drive? A year, maybe two? The Wood Brothers are seemingly in need of a new driver every few years. Options are always out there.
Would a bigger team have allowed him to be such an outspoken advocate? That’s debatable. What isn’t debatable is that RPM got the short end of the stick on this. Bubba could be replacing Jimmie Johnson in the #48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Other options could include Denny Hamlin’s reported investing in a Toyota team and putting Wallace in that ride.
No matter what happens, Wallace’s future looks bright and it looks as though he’ll be driving for a top team next season. What about RPM, though? What’s next for the team getting left behind in all this? Allow me to speculate on a few names who could be driving for “The King” next season.
Daniel Suarez: Suarez recently announced he and Gaunt Brothers Racing will part ways at the end of the season. RPM co-owner Andrew Murstein has long been committed to bringing more diversity to the sport and Suarez would certainly fit the bill. He’s struggled to be consistent at the sport’s top-level since his 2016 Xfinity Championship. He, like Wallace and Petty, is sponsored by Coca-Cola so it’s a seamless transition on that front. He’s also personally sponsored by CommScope (Formerly Arris) so Suarez could be the perfect fit at RPM.
Corey Lajoie: The son of two-time Xfinity series champion Randy Lajoie, Corey announced he will be leaving Go Fas Racing at the end of the season after spending two seasons with the team. He has gotten respectable results out of the 32, including 6 top 20s this season, which featured an 8th place finish at this year’s Daytona 500. He was formerly a development driver at RPM. With their familiar history, Lajoie in the 43 could be a safe landing for both parties.
Ty Dillon: With German Racing looking to sell, Dillion is looking for a ride. The former ARCA champ is talented but has never been in great equipment in the Cup series. While RPM doesn’t classify as “great” It would almost certainly be a step up for Dillion. Assuming RPM and RCR’s alliance continues next season Dillon being Richard Childress’s grandson makes the potential move a natural transition.
Landon Cassill: Cassill has kind of been forgotten about this season. He ran a very limited schedule for Morgan Shepard this season in the Xfinity Series. He finished 15th in Shepard’s 89 car in the Xfinity season finale in 2019. That should tell you all you need to know regarding his talent. The issue could be sponsorship depending on what RPM is left with once Wallace officially departs.
Kyle Larson: Larson is looking for a second chance from NASCAR and while there are rumors swirling that Larson could return next season in a top ride, you have to wonder if he can get major companies to sign off on him this soon. Say what you will regarding him personally but he would bring a level of raw talent not seen in the 43 since Bobby Labonte. The downside is you’d be replacing a controversial driver with a new controversial driver and no matter where you stand on Wallace or Larson it doesn’t take a genius to understand that RPM is likely looking to keep a lower profile when it comes to non-racing related topics for a while.
Erik Jones: Jones has been a Toyota staple since the beginning of his career and feels like any transition to Toyota for RPM is much less likely now that Wallace will no longer be with the team. Jones also has something that is seemingly hard to come by this silly season and that is experience winning in a cup car. His two career wins, and playoff experience is a valuable addition for a team like RPM who’s looking to be more consistently competitive. The problem could be the price tag, Jones is arguably the crown jewel of this silly season and RPM may not be in a position to agree to the cost it would likely take to land Jones.
Ross Chastain: The Watermelon Man and “The King” could no doubt make some cool ads together. He once was thought to be a shoo-in for a full-time cup ride in the not too distant future, but his status at Chip Ganassi Racing has been in limbo since Matt Kenseth took over the #42 Chevrolet.
There are other drivers that could be considered as well. Clint Bowyer comes to mind; he’s at an odd spot at Stewart-Haas Racing, in part due to Chase Briscoe’s recent Xfinity Series success... Bowyer’s may be too costly as well. He would also likely be a stop-gap driver. He’ll turn 42 in 2021 and it’s unlikely that he’ll want to spend much of his future trying to help a team build their program and sacrifice results. He wants to win a championship.
There are always Xfinity drivers looking to make the jump even when it’s not well advised, could a Brandon Jones or Justin Allgaier make the leap? Allgaier does have 77 career Cup starts, but has never been given much help at the top level.
When it comes to Bubba Wallace's decision I will always feel like RPM deserved better as far as timing goes. My only hope is whoever takes over the iconic 43 next season is someone that is willing to be with the organization for the foreseeable future. There’s no doubt it’ll be a challenge and uphill battle for whomever it is, and I hope they’re willing to climb.
It’s not insanity.....It’s Loganity
Jacobs, Caleb. “Richard Petty Says He Will Fire Anyone Who Protests the National Anthem.” The Drive,
25 Sept. 2017, https://www.thedrive.com/article/14593/richard-petty-says-he-will-fire-anyone-who-