The significance of Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr.’s new job driving the iconic No. 43 Ford for Richard Petty this summer has not been lost on the young driver … or his closest friends.
After five determined years climbing NASCAR’s national series ladder, the 23-year-old makes his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debut this weekend at Pocono Raceway (Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – the ultimate opportunity on NASCAR’s biggest stage.
One of his best friends – 23-year-old Ryan Blaney – drives another of the sport’s most historic cars, the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford. Like most other 20-somethings, that mutual, happy circumstance is something the pair plan to savor and remember by capturing and sharing the moment on social media.
This isn’t just historic. It’s really cool.
“Yeah, that’s huge,” Wallace said Tuesday. “It’s funny, Blaney texted me this morning, actually woke me up this morning, he wants a picture this weekend.
“I was like, OK. He was like, ‘We’re driving the two most iconic cars in the sport this weekend. We definitely have to capitalize on that.’ ”
And so Wallace will be steering a car number used by the sport’s “King,” the 79-year-old Petty, responsible for seven Cup championships and a historic 200-win total. He’ll line up with Blaney, whose number has been campaigned by 105-race winner David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Dale Jarrett and Junior Johnson – like Petty, all NASCAR Hall of Famers.
Undoubtedly the best way for the friends to capitalize on their history-rich rides would be for either Blaney’s No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford or Wallace’s No. 43 Smithfield Ford to wind up in Victory Lane after 400 tough miles at Pocono on Sunday afternoon.
But Wallace knows he doesn’t necessarily have to win this weekend to benefit both his career and the team, in the interim. In fact, he doesn’t “have to win” at all.
This is widely considered to be Wallace’s big-league audition, giving him the chance to show he also belongs with the drivers in their talented 20s crowding the Cup grid.
When he lines up to race Sunday, he will join Blaney, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon and Chris Buescher (the most recent Pocono winner) in that group of 20-year-olds already providing transitional optimism.
Wallace, clearly thrilled to join this young, elite group, beamed with enthusiasm in a tweet earlier this week: “Couldn’t be any more excited to jump in the iconic 43 car for @RPMotorsports while Aric recovers. Thank you all for the support since day 1! ”
Often that’s the emotional range in big-time auto racing. The happy ending – the chance to compete at the Cup level for Richard Petty Motorsports – begins now.
“That’s huge,” Wallace said. “That’s awesome for me to get my first start driving the No. 43 for Richard Petty and everybody at RPM. Then the other side of it is [being] the first African-American since 2006. That’s a lot of history behind it.
“I’ve always said dealing with that, I like to let the results speak for itself, let the results come in, let the history fall in behind that, not focus on the big spotlight, the African-American side, the iconic number.
“Let all that funnel in after we have our good runs, get out there on the racetrack and show everybody we can do it.
After spending much of Tuesday announcing the big news in media interviews – a national teleconference, satellite feeds and television sit-downs – Wallace tweeted out one final, emotional summation, “Today was a down right kick-ass day… ”
And it’s just the beginning.