Overshadowed by the continued speculation about his future and off-track advocacy for racial equality is the fact that Darrell Wallace Jr. is putting together a career-year with Richard Petty Motorsports.
Eleven races remain in the season, and Wallace is 22nd in the point standings, which is five spots better than where the No. 43 Chevrolet sat this time last year. He is working on a career-best finish in the points after ending up 28th in his first two seasons, and has already set a personal single-season high in top-10 finishes (four). His 20.1 average finish is nearly four spots better than what he accumulated last year.
“It’d mean a lot,” Wallace told RACER on closing out this season as his best yet at the Cup Series level. “We’ve had two trying years in trying to gain some traction and positive momentum to make things better. Bringing in Jerry [Baxter] has been a highlight, and we’re making the most of that.
“I think we’ve done a good job. We can clean up some things, but all in all, we’re continuing to do the right thing.”
Baxter has a positive influence on Wallace. The two previously worked together in the Truck Series, and Baxter isn’t afraid to get vocal on the radio and tell Wallace when he makes a mistake, or what he’s doing well.
“He’s always pushing me to try different things on the racetrack, studying SMT (data) and coming over the radio with, ‘Hey, these guys are doing this, try this’,” he said. “Or),‘your communication on the radio can be better try this.’ Certain things to look out for, and always encouraging me throughout the race: ‘Hey, you’re doing a good job.’ ‘Hey, we need a little bit more, step it up.’ Now we go at each other’s necks, but we know each other well enough to be able to do that.”
Under Baxter’s guidance and with some more sponsorship money to put into their effort, the team has earned 12 top-20 finishes. Their best run was a sixth-place result at Las Vegas before the coronavirus shutdown. When racing returned, Wallace felt the team was doing a good job of unloading the car close to where it needed to be. Lately, consistently getting the car’s balance where they need it to be has been more of a struggle.
Cash App came on board at Loudon, and in recent weeks, Wallace has announced sponsorship deals with Door Dash and Columbia. Those deals will go a long way in trying to end the year on a high note.
“You’re not going to see that funding for a couple of weeks, so we’re still trying to gather everything up and get parts and pieces ordered to finish this year out strong,” said Wallace. “It’ll be interesting to see what we can really do here in a couple of weeks.”
Whether he expected to or not, Wallace has had to grow up this season. Not only dealing with free agency and trying to be a part of an improving program, but also with regard to dealing with being in the spotlight out of the car. He has also worked this year on managing his emotions, and not taking chances that would take him out of contention. Learning throughout a race and setting himself up for the end has also been a process; something Wallace feels Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin do well.
“They make their cars better, and they’re there; they’re in contention,” said Wallace. “So, while we might not be competing for the win, instead of getting frustrated and pissed off and giving up, just being mad for the rest of the race, it’s me trying to be as positive as I can to help continue to make the car better throughout the race.”
With a little over two months to go before the season’s final checkered flag, Wallace isn’t sure how to sum what this year. But he’s ready for whatever comes at him next – on and off the track.
“You just have to get through it all, keep your sleeves rolled up, keep your head up and get through it because you never know what could happen,” he said. “It always seems like there’s something different every month that we’ve got to face. So, we’re ready for it. Whatever it may be.”