Placing Bubba Wallace’s quietly historic 2020 season in context

By: Ethan Fuller

Bubba 43 car

Featured image courtesy of Roland Balik.

Darrell Wallace Jr. might be the defining athlete of 2020.

While carrying the torch in NASCAR’s sudden lurch towards social progress, “Bubba” Wallace has faced an avalanche of positive and negative voices from all parts of the country. New fans and supporters, as well as critics and traditionalists, have chronicled just about every move and quote of Wallace’s summer.

One of the most common jabs at Wallace is that his popularity is not merited by his results on the track. It’s a stinging remark for a NASCAR driver; the reputation of a marketing chip or a sponsorship grab hurts. But the surface stats — zero career Cup Series wins, zero 2020 top-fives and a 19th-place slot in the standings — give off a rough first impression.

However, there’s so much more to the story. What Wallace is doing with his car and his resources is quite impressive. His performances just needs some context.

If you’re a new NASCAR fan or a nonbeliever, buckle up for my favorite sports lesson of all time: a history of the post-Petty no. 43, and Bubba’s underrated place in its lore.

What Happened After Richard Petty?

Analyzing a number through the years usually does not make much sense, since car numbers are often handed around, discontinued and revived between teams. But the 43 has stayed under one car owner and one (ish) team for so long that it can be done logically. This number has a storyline.

The number 43 is a NASCAR hallmark because of Richard Petty, the 200-win GOAT who is one of the most dominant athletes of their respective sports ever. He retired in 1992, but continued to oversee his family-run race team, Petty Enterprises, as the owner and figurehead of the organization.

Predictably, Petty Enterprises was not as successful without NASCAR’s “King” behind the wheel. But Richard Petty himself had slowly faded away during the twilight of his over-30-year career, and his replacements never reclaimed the magic.

Bobby Hamilton and John Andretti, the two regular drivers in the 1990’s, captured three wins amidst stunning inconsistency. For example: Andretti scored his only win in the no. 43 in 1999 to go with three top-fives and ten top-tens while managing an average finish of 22.06. That’s unbelievable.

The turn of the millennium brought harder times. Between 2000 and 2008, the no. 43 never posted an average finish better than 21.97, when Bobby Labonte raced in 2006. Petty Enterprises was terrible, and the 43 car’s mediocrity masks the fact that Petty owned a second, even worse car driven by son Kyle Petty.

(Side tangent: that ’06 Labonte season is the reason I watched NASCAR in the first place. The 43 that you see in just about every social media handle I own traces back to this season. Labonte was my favorite driver.)

When 2008 came around, NASCAR was rocked by the recession, forcing numerous mid-tier teams to close up shop. Petty merged his floundering team with Evernham Motorsports to form Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM), and this breathed some life back into the no. 43.

After a transitional year with Reed Sorenson, the iconic car moved to A.J. Allmendinger, a road course ace who I still believe is one of the underrated drivers of his time. He notched some of the best years of the post-Petty era, and his 2011 average finish of 16.06 is actually the best since Petty drove the car back in 1987.

When Allmendinger moved on after 2011, Aric Almirola stepped into the ride. Maybe you recognize this name? Almirola now drives for Stewart-Haas racing and is one of the most consistent racers in the sport. He spent five years with RPM and finally snapped the car’s winless streak with a 2014 victory in the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

But throughout the 2010’s, RPM’s struggles were no secret. The organization started with a two-car team, but the no. 9 car folded after 2015, and Brian Scott’s arrival as no. 44 was a disaster.

By 2018, the once-mighty Richard Petty was down to a single underfunded race team. The 43 car had spent the better part of 25 years languishing in the middle of the pack when Wallace joined the Cup Series.

What Did Wallace Inherit?

For starters, Bubba Wallace’s arrival was the first time the number had been driven full-time by a NASCAR prospect since… oh boy… Richard Petty himself in 1959. All of the other drivers I mentioned were either castoff veterans or mid-level talents, with Almirola the only one who really leaped forward after his time in the no. 43. Evernham used to take a swing at some younger drivers, but Petty never did until 2018.

Wallace also inherited the aforementioned years of hardship and general disappointment that came with a legendary car being simply bland in the field.

On top of all this, RPM was making a technical shift. The team had a close alliance with the also-fading Roush Fenway Racing, but in winter of 2017, it made huge changes. RPM announced a manufacturer change to Chevrolet and a new technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing.

This type of shift cannot be understated. For the crews, builders and mechanics and RPM, changing manufacturers and cars means a reset of what you have known and done in NASCAR since you were with the team. It requires new learning. And while Richard Childress Racing was and is a strong group, a new alliance means resetting your relationships, teamwork and intel on race cars. The closest comparison I could make is relocating your NFL franchise while the league undergoes massive rule changes.

Oh, and RPM is adding a new rookie quarterback — I mean, driver.

The context makes the dismal 2018 and 2019 seasons understandable. Wallace and the team wrecked a lot and dealt with quite a few mechanical failures, resulting in 6 DNF’s (Did Not Finish) in 2018 and three in 2019. Both years saw Wallace finish 28th in the final standings. There’s no sugarcoating it; those first two seasons were objectively bad.

However, even bad years are part of growth. Wallace is just now only 26 years old — quite young by NASCAR career arc standards. Entering 2020 he reunited with crew chief Jerry Baxter, who helped Bubba tear up the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series in 2013 and 2014. In what Wallace described preseason as “a crucial year” for the team, something had to improve.

How is This Year So Good?

To call 2020 a leap for Bubba Wallace does a tremendous disservice to what he has done through half of the season.

Wallace has three top-tens so far — already tied for a career high. He has two DNF’s; oddly, both occurred in one week at Charlotte, where he had a mechanical failure in one race and crashed out of another. Otherwise he has put together some impressive stretches, especially in the post-quarantine period. Wallace has posted finishes that are above average for his career at all but three tracks so far this year: Charlotte (those two DNF’s) and Fontana.

Now for the historic part. Wallace’s averaged finish this year is 18.69, which is the fourth-best season in the 43 car since 2000 and sixth-best since Richard Petty sat behind the wheel. He’s also netting four positions gained from his average starting spot of 22.7, which is the second-best net gain in the post-Petty era behind only Aric Almirola in 2015.

Add the level of scrutiny Wallace is under (historic for a NASCAR driver), and it becomes frankly stunning that he can put together a career-best season and a fantastic first half by no. 43 standards.

The bottom line is that Wallace probably is not going to win a race this season, and a top-five would be a major victory for the team. NASCAR’s lack of parity among race teams has plagued the sport since the 2008 recession, and RPM is one of the mid-level organizations that is trapped under the top conglomerates.

But the 43 car has a single win in the 21st century, and it came via a rain-shortened race. Placing top-20 in points, and running in the top 15 consistently, are signs of an improving team and driver. That’s where Wallace is right now, and at 26, it shows he’s only trending upward.

Average finish statistics come courtesy of Driver Averages.

All other racing statistics come courtesy of Racing Reference.

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