Bubba Wallace is bracing for what will be his first Monster Energy Series start at Darlington Raceway, just several weeks away on Labor Day weekend. Richard Petty, his team owner, will miss out on the driving part this year. The NASCAR icon says he’s been benched.
One of the best impromptu moments from last year’s throwback weekend at Darlington was Petty taking the wheel of the Plymouth Belvedere he drove to victory in the 1967 Southern 500. Guiding the car with an ear-to-ear grin, Petty apparently made one or two ceremonial pace laps too many, a gesture that resulted in a black flag at the start-finish line.
“No, they didn’t invite me back to drive this time,” Petty says with a laugh. “I think they’re going to tie me to a post out there to keep me from getting back in the car.”
Wallace will get to participate in the retro emotions instead this year, driving a No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet that harkens back to the earliest days of the team’s association with STP. The car, awash in Petty’s trademark shade of blue, made its debut Tuesday in an unveiling at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Like many, Wallace savored Petty’s return to the wheel during last year’s Bojangles’ Southern 500, even if NASCAR’s King might have good-naturedly overstayed his welcome.
“That was one of the coolest things, seeing that and him just having the biggest smile on his face, enjoying it,” Wallace said. “Seeing him back behind the wheel of a race car, I think a lot of people wanted to see that. One or two extra laps, it didn’t hurt anybody.”
Wallace has made a pair of Xfinity Series starts at Darlington, but the Sept. 2 race will mark his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series appearance at the historic 1.366-mile track. Vintage paint schemes at Darlington have become a now-annual celebration of stock-car racing’s past. For Petty, who made his first big-league NASCAR start 60 years ago, there’s plenty of tradition to unearth.
This year’s rendition of the No. 43 dials the clock back to the 1972 season opener, where Petty won at the old Riverside International Raceway road course. The sponsorship talks with STP were ramping up, but the look of the car had become a sticking point — with the automotive company hoping to add a splash of bright red to the familiar blue.
Petty eventually relented to the two-tone concept, but not before one last Riverside victory in the predominantly blue machine, a look replicated on the 2018 Camaro ZL1 unveiled Tuesday. “It just brings memories back,” Petty said.
If there’s any mild, lingering disappointment for Wallace in knowing that Petty’s pace laps won’t be back for a do-over this year, it hasn’t shown. He’s ready to be a more active participant himself in the Labor Day festivities, gearing up for his first try in the legendary 500-miler.
“I think aside from the Daytona 500, maybe the Brickyard, the Southern 500 is right up there with it,” Wallace said. “Just being a part of that weekend and everything it has to offer — the challenges that come with running Darlington, Labor Day weekend — a lot of people are there in person to be able to check out all the schemes and the outfits and the whole just attitude from that weekend.
“So it’s a positive vibe from start to finish. For me to be able to experience it with such a great team — an iconic team — it all just kind of ties in with the fun.”
The Southern 500 at the Darlington Raceway is scheduled for Sunday, September 2. The race will be televised live on NBC Sports Network at 6:00 p.m. ET and broadcast on the Motor Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR radio.