Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., who made four starts this year for Richard Petty Motorsports as a relief driver, will compete full-time for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series organization in 2018.
RPM officials announced the move Wednesday.
Wallace will replace Aric Almirola, who is leaving at the end of the 2017 season after a six-year stint driving the team’s iconic No. 43.
It was an injury to Almirola earlier this year that briefly put Wallace in the seat of the No. 43. He finished inside the top 20 in three of his four starts, including a best of 11th at Kentucky.
The four-race effort was an eye-opening experience, Wallace told NASCAR.com
“I didn’t know what the Cup Series was about,” he said. “I knew it was taking the next step. I didn’t know how big that step was. …
“Look at XFINITY and Trucks stats, I’m one of the most aggressive drivers out there on restarts. I take pride in that. I thought what I was going to bring to the table was somewhat enough. It barely put a dent in what you need to bring to the Cup series.
“That’s to run 20th and I’m like ‘Holy cow!’ ”
Wallace is a six-time winner in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series with 45 starts. He made 85 starts in the XFINITY Series, including a dozen this year for Roush Fenway Racing before officials there shut the team down due to a lack of funding. Wallace was fourth in points at the time.
A graduate of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, Wallace is the fourth African-American to compete in the Monster Energy Series and the second to win in one of NASCAR’s three national series. NASCAR Hall of Fame member Wendell Scott scored one victory in NASCAR’s top series on Dec. 1, 1963.
Wallace will be the 10th driver to pilot the No. 43 full-time since Petty, a seven-time champion and winner of a NASCAR record 200 races, stepped out of the car in November of 1992. Petty was one of the five inaugural members inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
“I think that’s pretty bad-ass, actually,” Wallace said of competing for such a legendary figure and family. “It’s so unique and I think there is a lot of history to unfold behind that between myself and him. The combination there is really just, I think, a dream come true and just a marketing dream for sure.”
Almirola won once while with RPM; he is only 33 but Petty says Wallace brings a bit of youth to the group.
“And he’s had pretty much success about everywhere he’s been,” Petty said. “We feel like he’s got enough experience to come into Cup racing and after running 3-4 races with us, we said ‘This (is) liable to be a good combination.’ ”
Success has been hard to come by for the organization in recent years, with only four wins coming since Petty’s retirement. Bobby Hamilton won twice for the group while John Andretti and Almirola each won once.
Almirola’s victory at Daytona in July of ’14 earned him a berth in the NASCAR Playoffs. But he finished 17th in points the following year and 26th last season. He is currently 29th after missing seven races due to a back injury suffered in May at Kansas Speedway.
Previously a two-car organization, RPM cut back to a single entry beginning in 2017.
“We are not a winning team right now,” Petty said. “We can’t put somebody in it and expect them to win the race. So we put Bubba in the car and say ‘OK we have to get consistent.’ We’ll work on getting in the top 15. We get that settled and we’ll go to 10 and just work your way up. And we feel like Bubba can do that.”
The Petty family has been involved in NASCAR since the very beginning — Richard’s father Lee, also a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, competed in the very first Strictly Stock race held in 1949 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“I don’t know that it’s that important for (NASCAR) to have the (Petty) name,” Petty said. “We’ve been here 68 years I guess, since 1949. Always been involved.”
The 2018 changes will likely keep him showing up at the track, something he’s done nearly every weekend since those early days working for his father.
“I think with the coming deal, I sat down and said ‘you’re 80 years old. If you’re ever going to do anything, you better get involved,’ ” he said. “I think I’ll get more involved this coming year than what I’ve been in the past.”
While Wallace earned high marks for his brief time in the car earlier this season, he knows next year will be a different situation with different expectations.
“I think things went so well for me in these four races because I just kind of relaxed and let everything come to me,” Wallace said. “… All the stars need to be in line to win races and run well. You can’t make those stars be aligned. Sometimes it’s your day, sometimes it’s not. Coming to accept that was the biggest thing I think out of those four races that I learned.
“I’ll go into Daytona with fingers crossed and eyes open wide.”