While many have been writing off the Richard Petty Motorsports team since Aric Almirola took his sponsor Smithfield Foods with him to Stewart-Haas Racing following the 2017 season, Bubba Wallace and the No. 43 team have had a solid start to the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season and after a sixth-place finish at Las Vegas, you have to wonder if perhaps this will be a breakout year for the 26-year old.
That remains to be seen, but Sunday’s performance was certainly a great momentum builder for the driver and team.
“We had a shot at a good finish and we capitalized on that,” explained Wallace. “All-in-all, it was a good day and a win for us. It was just a good gamble call.”
On Sunday in the Pennzoil 400, Wallace started 27th when qualifying was cancelled due to rain and the starting lineup was set by way of the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series owner points.
Through the race, Wallace didn’t appear to have a banner day forming.
At the end of Stage 1, Wallace held serve in 27th and by the end of Stage 2, Wallace had only worked his way to 22nd.
But this is where the magic started happening.
In the caution break following Stage 2, Wallace brought his No. 43 Coca-Cola Energy Camaro to the attention of his pit crew. The RPM team ripped off an incredible pit stop, and as a result, Wallace would move up to 17th in the running order.
It looked like things were finally improving for the team.
However, Wallace had an issue with front grip on his car. Wallace would short pit under green at lap 218 for tires and adjustments. Unfortunately, just a few laps later Chase Elliott would go for a spin. The caution would come out and Wallace would be trapped a lap down.
But as the leaders pitted under the caution, Wallace stayed on track and took the wave around to get himself back on the lead lap and back into the race.
With six laps remaining in the race, Wallace was up to 20th. A solid top-20 on what had been a tough day would have been a decent day. But when Ross Chastain went spinning to bring out the caution everything changed for the No. 43 team.
Wallace joined six other drivers in staying on the race track, while the rest of the field pitted. This meant Wallace was now seventh in the running order, and when the race would go green, there were just two laps left.
Over the chaotic final two laps, Wallace would snag another spot up to sixth before the caution came out and ended the race on the final lap. Wallace was happy as he walked out of Las Vegas with a solid finish, and he credited his new crew chief Jerry Baxter in keeping him grounded through what started out as a sub par day.
“There were frustrating moments over the radio, just trying to make this Coke Energy Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE better,” said Wallace. “I know how I lose my cool a little bit, but one of the main reasons I brought Jerry Baxter in was to calm me down and show that light at the end of the tunnel. Every time I fired back, he said ‘I get it, you’re fine, we’re going to be fine’ and he was right.”
This sixth-place effort marks Wallace’s fifth top-10 finish in 78 NASCAR Cup Series starts. Couple this finish with a 15th-place effort in a wild Daytona 500, and Wallace sits 12th in the NASCAR Cup Series point standings after two races.
It’s a hell of a start to the season. In fact, Wallace has more top-15 finishes through two starts this season (two) than he had in the entire first-half of the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series season (one).
It’s early, for sure. But if Wallace can keep recording top-10 and top-15 finishes in bunches, the No. 43 team may just find themselves becoming quite relevant come Playoff time.
Toby is the Founder, Editor and go-to man for TobyChristie.com. He is also the co-host of The Final Lap Weekly Podcast. Additionally, Toby is a NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) award winning writer, and has followed NASCAR as a fan since 1993.