The morning after the news broke that Darrell Wallace Jr. would be driving the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports entry at Pocono Raceway, Wallace got a text from close friend Ryan Blaney.
The driver of the legendary No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford wanted to commemorate the occasion.
“It’s funny, Blaney texted me this morning, actually woke me up this morning,” Wallace said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “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.’
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“That’s huge. 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 the first African-American since 2006. That’s a lot of history behind it.”
Yes, Wallace is driving the car that NASCAR’s “King” piloted to the lion’s share of his record 200 victories.
Yes, Wallace is the first African-American driver to compete in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series since Bill Lester ran two races for owner Bill Davis in 2006.
And, yes, when Wallace took the checkered flag in the October 2013 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event at Martinsville, he became the first black driver to win a national series event since NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott triumphed in the premier series at Jacksonville, Fla., in 1963.
Wallace knows the history. He got a call from Wendell Scott Jr. on Monday night, after the RPM announcement, and two days after Wallace led seven laps in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Dover and finished eighth.
“He was so pumped up,” Wallace said. “He said he was helping me drive the car this past weekend at Dover. He said that was our race, for sure. He was pumped up about this past weekend, obviously this opportunity. He kept it short and sweet.
“So that’s huge when you still have that connection with the family, continue to carry on a legacy that their father laid.”
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But Wallace’s primary concern this weekend at Pocono isn’t the history he’s making. The bottom line is performance during a limited opportunity as a substitute driver for injured Aric Almirola.
“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,” Wallace said.
“Let all that funnel in after we have our good runs, get out there on the race track and show everybody we can do it.”
In other words, the race that will consume Wallace’s attention this weekend is the one on the asphalt.
At 23, Wallace already has a long history in motorsports. A native of Mobile, Ala., Wallace grew up in Concord, N.C., and ascended through the ranks of Bandoleros and Legend Cars to Late Models and then to the K&N Pro Series East in 2010 through NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program.
He won the first K&N race he ever ran, becoming simultaneously the youngest driver and the first African-American to take a checkered flag at Greenville-Pickens (S.C.) Speedway. A year later, he was named to the inaugural NASCAR Next class, a program that spotlights the future stars of the sport.
Signed as a development driver with Joe Gibbs Racing, Wallace followed his 2013 victory in the Camping World Truck Series with four more wins and a third-place finish in the final standings in 2014, but lack of sponsorship dictated a move to Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 6 NASCAR Xfinity Series Ford in 2015.
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Wallace is winless in 77 starts with Roush Fenway, and even though he is currently fourth in the series standings, he will leave the No. 6 Ford after this weekend at Pocono, as RFR suspends the operation of that program due to lack of funding.
The “0” in the win column is the number that haunts Wallace, and it’s the reason he attributes to the inability to find financial support for his racing efforts.
“There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about that,” Wallace said. “That’s probably the biggest battle. Yeah, you can look at Trucks, say that was three, four years ago, two, three years ago, whenever that was. Now it’s the new year. Times have changed. We’re winless.
“I guess I’m beating myself up over it right now, that may have something to do with it. The other part of it. I try to represent myself and my team the best that I can. Times get tough sometimes. You lose cool. At the end of the day it is one of the most demanding and grueling sports.
“Nobody loves finishing second, as we’ve seen in past races. It’s a sport that you want to get everything you can out of it, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. So the sponsorship stuff, everybody’s battling that. I just happen to be one of those guys that is.”
It’s fortunate that Wallace’s opportunity in the No. 43 Ford dovetails so conveniently with his departure from Roush Fenway. But how many races he’ll drive in Almirola’s stead is an open question.
Almirola suffered a compression fracture of his T5 vertebra in a wreck on May 13 at Kansas Speedway. There’s no specific timetable for his return. And beyond his stint as Almirola’s replacement, Wallace doesn’t know what the future holds. He knows he has a small window, perhaps six to 10 races, to prove himself at NASCAR’s highest level.
“Honestly, I can’t really touch on that, because, simple as that, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Wallace said. “One thing I can touch on is I know I’ll go out there and prove to everybody inside the race track, outside the race track, on the TV, that I belong in the Cup Series.
“Do the best that I can. Give an extra 200 percent each and every time I climb in the car for Ford, for Richard Petty, for everybody on the team, for (sponsor) Smithfield, to go out there and make the opportunity the greatest it has been.”