Could Darrell Wallace Jr. be the spark that Richard Petty needs?

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Could Darrell Wallace Jr. be the spark that Richard Petty needs?
Lee Spencer
By: Lee Spencer
Feb 18, 2018, 3:27 PM

Richard Petty’s glory days at Daytona International Speedway included seven wins in the Great American Race.

Darrell Wallace Jr., Richard Petty Motorsports, Click n' Close Ford Fusion
Darrell Wallace Jr., Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro
Ryan Blaney, Team Penske Ford Fusion, Darrell Wallace Jr., Richard Petty Motorsports Ford Fusion, and Joey Logano, Team Penske Ford Fusion
Darrell Wallace Jr., Richard Petty Motorsports, Click n' Close Ford Fusion
Darrell Wallace Jr., Richard Petty Motorsports, Click n' Close Ford Fusion
Darrell Wallace Jr., Richard Petty Motorsports Ford Fusion
Darrell Wallace Jr., Richard Petty Motorsports Ford Fusion, William Byron, Hendrick Motorsports,AXALTA Chevrolet Camaro, Chris Buescher, JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet Camaro, David Ragan, Front Row Motorsports Ford Fusion, and Jamie McMurray, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Camaro
Darrell Wallace Jr., Richard Petty Motorsports Ford Fusion
Brad Keselowski, Team Penske Ford Fusion, Darrell Wallace Jr., Richard Petty Motorsports Ford Fusion
Darrell Wallace Jr., Richard Petty Motorsports, Click n' Close Ford Fusion

During the King’s tenure in the No. 43 car at Daytona, he won 10 races, four poles and posted 28 top fives and 37 top 10s in 74 starts. 

After his retirement in 1992, twenty years passed before Petty was able to celebrate another win with the iconic No. 43 car at Daytona. Aric Almirola delivered his one and only victory with the team during the rain-shortened July race in 2014.

It’s been a while since Richard Petty Motorsports had reason for optimism. Over the last nine years, the organization has dwindled from four teams to one. From 2009 through 2014, three drivers won a total of five races.

Renewed sense of hope

But since Darrell “Bubba” Wallace took over the driver’s seat full-time this season, there’s been a renewed sense of hope with the team. And after Wallace finished third in the first Can-Am Duel qualifying race on Thursday following the team’s transition to Chevy, Petty is more confident than he’s been in a while regarding the No. 43 team’s chances on Sunday.

“Really looking forward to it,” Petty said on Friday. “We're working a whole lot with Chevrolet, working with RCR. Sort of a new chapter in Richard Petty Motorsports' book. We got a new shop, we got a new car, we got a new driver. Had a pretty good night (on Thursday). I was very appreciative of how everything went for us (in the Duel). Everything was brand‑new to us.

“We're looking forward to the rest of the year, like everybody else. From our standpoint, it was almost like winning. Really we did win because it's a brand‑new team. Chevrolet has been really behind us to try to get us up to speed on how they run their operations and stuff. So far it's been good. We're looking forward to bigger and better things.”

Confidence high

Following his podium finish in the first Duel, Wallace was sixth in the first practice on Friday, skipped the second practice and then topped Happy Hour on Saturday with a speed of 196.954mph—the fastest of 25 cars.

“We all know that means absolutely nothing, but it feels good,” Wallace said. “I didn’t know we were top of the board there. We were stuck in the back of the pack for a little bit there. Started making moves late and the pack split up and we started doing pit road runs and the next thing you know we are on top of the board.

“I’m like – cool. I even missed pit road opening looking at the pylon. That gives us a lot of confidence especially going into this week. A lot of stories, a lot of headlines being talked about. To win something is good.”

Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer joined RPM in 2014 and became Almirola’s crew chief two years later. He first worked with Wallace last summer after Almirola was injured at Kansas Speedway in May. Blickensderfer watched Wallace improve with every start. In his first four Cup races, Wallace’s average finish was one position better than Almirola’s average for 2017.

A turning point?

Is Wallace the spark that could turn the No. 43 team around?

“Absolutely, 100-percent,” Blickensderfer said. “We just had a team meeting about how serious and how important the Daytona 500 is because he brings this togetherness around us. We’re all friends with him now. He’s friends with all of us. He’s one of us. Sometimes that gets too comfortable and we have to remember, ‘Ok, he’s the driver and we have a job to do.’ But he makes it so we all want to push and pull in his direction.

“The only thing that could have been better is if we could have won Thursday night. But we were in the place to do it. So that was pretty impressive. That last couple of practices were great. You don’t want to have high expectations, because he’s only a rookie. He hasn’t been in a car since July of last year, and he’s only made four Cup starts. All four starts last year, every practice and every race this year, he’s impressed. He’s extended himself further than our expectations of him, so the kid seems to be the real deal.”

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