The NASCAR postseason is typically an all-encompassing event. If you’re not in that group of 16, chances are your name is forgotten until the 2021 Daytona 500 in February. I’m not saying that’s fair; it’s just the way it is in the WATCH FREE HERE of stock car racing. The Federated Auto Parts 400 is typically no different, the short track that helps separate the championship contenders from early pretenders.
But heading into tonight’s race at Richmond (Sept. 12), the biggest story sits further back on the grid.
Bubba Wallace, one of the biggest newsmakers in the sport this year, announced this week he won’t return to Richard Petty Motorsports in 2021. The driver of one of the most iconic cars in motorsports, King Richard Petty’s No. 43, will move elsewhere despite being offered partial ownership in the team.
Wallace had lacked proper funding for much of his RPM tenure but spent the past few months signing big-money deals after his social justice stance made headlines. The noose hung by Wallace’s garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway in June, which the FBI investigated before determining no hate crime was committed, unified the garage area and brought attention to his story as the sport’s lone full-time African-American driver.
Since then? Growing, technology-based, millennial-style companies have hopped on board like DoorDash and the Cash App. Wallace is likely to take that sponsorship elsewhere armed with the money needed to slide into top-tier equipment, especially with the tough economic conditions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Will that lead to top-tier results? Wallace has led just 24 laps in 103 career starts and sits 23rd in this year’s point standings. Since a high point of second in the 2018 Daytona 500, he’s earned just two other top-five finishes while racking up 13 DNFs in the same stretch.
No matter what the answer is, it’ll be a bit before we have a good idea where Wallace is headed. However, lost in the smoke of his departure is the uncertain future of RPM. Petty, now 83 years old, is little more than a figurehead on the team that bears his name. His car hasn’t won on the Cup level since Aric Almirola at Daytona in 2014. Yet the longtime most popular (and most successful) driver of the 1960s and ’70s remains connected to an entire generation of NASCAR fans (and then some).
RPM says a new driver will be selected soon for 2021. Will one, though? Wallace will take most of the money from an already beleaguered operation along with him. RPM is now the third single-car team to face such a financial shortfall; the other two (LFR, Germain Racing) have sold their charters or are strongly considering it.
Petty deserves a longtime place in the sport just as much as Wallace deserves a chance at a better ride. The sport has already lost many of its giants from that era in recent years: David Pearson, Junior Johnson, and Richard’s brother Maurice (master engine builder) earlier in 2020. Taking Richard out of the owner’s paddock would be one of Father Time’s biggest blows.
Let’s hope both men find a way to land on their feet. No matter what, the sport will always have their unifying photos, a show of support for that Talladega Superspeedway trauma that will forever define the sport’s 2020 season.
Federated Auto Parts 400
Date: Saturday, Sept. 12
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Track: Richmond Raceway (Richmond, Va.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kevin Harvick
Oh, about those NASCAR playoffs. Top seed Harvick took advantage of late contact from leaders Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott to win the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Despite driving a car that struggled to find winning speed most of the night, Harvick saved his best for last in earning his eighth victory of 2020, tying a career high.
Harvick’s now locked into the Round of 12 and is on the precipice of rarified air. He would already be one of the oldest drivers to win a NASCAR title at age 44; a ninth victory would set a series record for wins in one season at that age.
Who’s at the Back: Ryan Blaney
Blaney’s 2020 playoff debut couldn’t have gone any worse. An improperly mounted ballast, found in pre-race inspection, cost him 10 driver points. An unscheduled green-flag stop for a flat tire cost him any hope of regaining track position. The resulting 24th-place finish put him 17 points below the cutline, the biggest surprise among drivers on the outside looking in.
That’s the worst type of luck for Blaney, heading to a track where he’s never finished inside the top 10 in eight career starts. His 25.5 average finish there is a career worst in the Cup Series for oval tracks.