Darrell Wallace Jr. has two weekends left in his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rookie campaign, although he can already admit the season has been nothing short of a continuous learning process.
Wallace owns up to the things his No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports team has done wrong. He also points out the situations which were out of their control, either getting caught up in someone else’s wreck or something going wrong with his Chevrolet. Thinking about the massive hit Wallace had when he lost his brakes in Turn 1 at Pocono? Yes, that’s an example he readily brings up.
“Hell of a rookie year, you know?” Wallace expressed as he talked to RACER in the team’s hauler two weeks ago.
Wallace was relaxed and chatty as he went through early reflection on his season. Signing hero cards as he talked, Wallace was excited for the upcoming race at Martinsville Speedway, one of his favorite racetracks. The excitement disappeared later in the day when Wallace wrecked his primary car in qualifying.
Running the First Data 500 in a backup car, Wallace finished 34th. Nine times Wallace has finished 30th or worse this year. Last weekend Wallace returned to Texas Motor Speedway, where he had run in the top 10 and finished eighth in the spring — only to cross the finish line 25th.
“We’re behind where we want to be, honestly, just from a speed perspective,” Wallace said. “That’s the biggest thing right now. We unload and get our balance fairly close, and we’re good to run 25th, and that’s the bummer part about it. So, we’re a little behind on that part. But it’s a process when you start over, basically from scratch, and you’re trying to get more funding throughout the year. We’re already focused on next year, for sure. I know I am. I know we’re going to finish out the season strong.”
Funding, Wallace said last month, is one answer to how his team could improve — one of the simplest ways for any organization to go fast. RPM has been piecing together sponsorship for the car all year, from Click n’ Close joining for a few races early in the year to the continued support from STP and the U.S. Air Force.
New partners have joined along the way, but nothing long-term to help the stability and bank account. So it hasn’t been surprising when team co-owner Andrew Murstein has had his own company, Medallion Bank, on the car, and Petty’s garage has also appeared.
“The biggest thing is just continue to try to get into a rhythm, try to keep the consistency going,” Wallace continued. “Made a lot of mistakes [at Kansas Speedway] on my end on pit road. Just little things I got to clean up. I think about it. A lot of good drivers make those mistakes too, so it’s not too bad to hang your head on. But still, you want to minimize those, especially when you’re in a hole like we are then you add mistakes on top. Then it’s like, ah, you double screwed yourself.”
Going into the penultimate race of the season at ISM Raceway, Wallace is 28th in points. Results have been all over the board: nine top 20s, two top 10s, and one top-five finish. Of course, that came in the Daytona 500 when Wallace wound up second in an improbable and emotional performance that stole the headlines.
Six DNFs have helped give Wallace an average finish of 25th. When asked if there was a bad result where he still left a race feeling accomplished or that it was a good weekend, Wallace had to dig deep in his memory.
“Every time we’ve had one of those races going, s*** would happen,” he said. “Look at Roval weekend where I struggled my ass off, went to a backup car (after a practice crash, below) and then got into the race and damn, surprised myself. Think I surprised everybody on the team how well we ran. It wasn’t anything spectacular, we weren’t running top five but from how the weekend started to how it was going to end – we thought – was night and day difference. That one was the most recent one, but then we got caught up in the wreck there at the end, so that took away the image we had.
“So, for as good of a race we were having, it was like, well, go figure. It’s wadded up. Anything beyond that, there hasn’t really been anything that has stood out. It’s all learning. The race that stood out to me is Texas and Bristol. First Bristol, where we went up and led laps; Texas we ran top 12 all day, and that was big. Then we’ve kind of hit a stalemate. We’ve had multiple DNFs in the last 15 races or so.”
Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer previously told RACER he believes the team is a 17th- to 19th-place competitor. However, things haven’t panned out that way, for as Wallace can attest, one reason or another. Wallace agreed with Blickensderfer’s assessment and also didn’t hesitate to say that the focus in the final races will be about positioning themselves to accomplish that goal next season.
“We got … good tracks coming up,” Wallace said. “Phoenix is a race that stood out earlier, beginning of the season we were really strong. We had two loose wheels that put us four or five laps down, so didn’t get the finish we wanted but our car was super fast. Then going to Homestead, that’s going to be another one first time for me in a Cup car, just a big learning curve.
“We’ll see what we can do.”
And, oh by the way…
Social media has been particularly hard on Wallace and his performance this season. Actively engaged on many platforms, Wallace sees it, sometimes responds to the vitriol, and certainly understands where it comes from.
“It comes with the territory and the way that NASCAR – not bashing them – but kind of throws you out there off the deep end – hottest thing since sliced bread – and then you run 25th you kind of get a bad reputation,” said Wallace. “For me, I wish I could tell people we’re not going to run second every weekend like the Daytona 500, so don’t expect that. People expect that and then they go after you.
“For us, I know when it’s a good weekend, but it’s still a s****y weekend to the outside viewers, so that’s kind of the hard thing they don’t really understand. But that’s OK. They don’t have to because it’s up to us to carry our heads high and march on to the next week.”