Bubba Wallace breaks through NASCAR playoff storylines heading to Richmond
The NASCAR postseason is typically an all-encompassing event. If you're not in that group of 16, chances are your name is forgotten until the 2021 Daytona 500 in February. I'm not saying that's fair; it's just the way it is in the playoff era of stock car racing. The Federated Auto Parts 400 is typically no different, the short track that helps separate the championship contenders from early pretenders.
But heading into tonight's race at Richmond (Sept. 12), the biggest story sits further back on the grid.
Bubba Wallace, one of the biggest newsmakers in the sport this year, announced this week he won't return to Richard Petty Motorsports in 2021. The driver of one of the most iconic cars in motorsports, King Richard Petty's No. 43, will move elsewhere despite being offered partial ownership in the team.
Wallace had lacked proper funding for much of his RPM tenure but spent the past few months signing big-money deals after his social justice stance made headlines. The noose hung by Wallace's garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway in June, which the FBI investigated before determining no hate crime was committed, unified the garage area and brought attention to his story as the sport’s lone full-time African-American driver.
Since then? Growing, technology-based, millennial-style companies have hopped on board like DoorDash and the Cash App. Wallace is likely to take that sponsorship elsewhere armed with the money needed to slide into top-tier equipment, especially with the tough economic conditions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Will that lead to top-tier results? Wallace has led just 24 laps in 103 career starts and sits 23rd in this year's point standings. Since a high point of second in the 2018 Daytona 500, he’s earned just two other top-five finishes while racking up 13 DNFs in the same stretch.
But money moves mountains in NASCAR these days; add in Wallace's popularity combined with his relative youth (age 26) and the opportunity is there for him to move up. The question is... where? The two top rides available, at Hendrick Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing, reportedly do not have a current offer on the table.
That raises eyebrows as to where Wallace is headed next. RPM had an alliance with Richard Childress Racing; could he form a third team there? And rumors in the garage, once centered around Leavine Family Racing's sale, won't die surrounding a possible foray into ownership by Michael Jordan and good friend Denny Hamlin. Jordan has been a longtime fan of NASCAR, recently designing a paint scheme for Hamlin’s eNASCAR team in the Coca-Cola iRacing Series. He was on the No. 11 pit box for the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway last November and would have the high price tag needed to purchase and invest in a top-quality team right away.
No matter what the answer is, it'll be a bit before we have a good idea where Wallace is headed. However, lost in the smoke of his departure is the uncertain future of RPM. Petty, now 83 years old, is little more than a figurehead on the team that bears his name. His car hasn't won on the Cup level since Aric Almirola at Daytona in 2014. Yet the longtime most popular (and most successful) driver of the 1960s and '70s remains connected to an entire generation of NASCAR fans (and then some).
RPM says a new driver will be selected soon for 2021. Will one, though? Wallace will take most of the money from an already beleaguered operation along with him. RPM is now the third single-car team to face such a financial shortfall; the other two (LFR, Germain Racing) have sold their charters or are strongly considering it.
Petty deserves a longtime place in the sport just as much as Wallace deserves a chance at a better ride. The sport has already lost many of its giants from that era in recent years: David Pearson, Junior Johnson, and Richard's brother Maurice (master engine builder) earlier in 2020. Taking Richard out of the owner's paddock would be one of Father Time's biggest blows.
Let's hope both men find a way to land on their feet. No matter what, the sport will always have their unifying photos, a show of support for that Talladega Superspeedway trauma that will forever define the sport's 2020 season.
Federated Auto Parts 400
Date: Saturday, Sept. 12
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Track: Richmond Raceway (Richmond, Va.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Kevin Harvick
Oh, about those NASCAR playoffs. Top seed Harvick took advantage of late contact from leaders Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott to win the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Despite driving a car that struggled to find winning speed most of the night, Harvick saved his best for last in earning his eighth victory of 2020, tying a career high.
Harvick's now locked into the Round of 12 and is on the precipice of rarified air. He would already be one of the oldest drivers to win a NASCAR title at age 44; a ninth victory would set a series record for wins in one season at that age.
Who's at the Back: Ryan Blaney
Blaney's 2020 playoff debut couldn't have gone any worse. An improperly mounted ballast, found in pre-race inspection, cost him 10 driver points. An unscheduled green-flag stop for a flat tire cost him any hope of regaining track position. The resulting 24th-place finish put him 17 points below the cutline, the biggest surprise among drivers on the outside looking in.
That’s the worst type of luck for Blaney, heading to a track where he’s never finished inside the top 10 in eight career starts. His 25.5 average finish there is a career worst in the Cup Series for oval tracks.
Jimmie Johnson is officially continuing his career with Chip Ganassi Racing... in the INDYCAR Series. The seven-time NASCAR Cup champion will attempt to run all the road and street courses in 2021 with Ganassi's program, pending sponsorship. "When I tested Chip's Indy car earlier in the year, it only lit the fire more," Johnson said in a team release announcing the move. "I found that I wanted to do it more than ever before." The Indianapolis 500 is not on the list for next season but has not been permanently ruled out for down the road.
Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer enter tonight's race without their regular crew chiefs. Adam Stevens and Johnny Klausmeier, respectively, were suspended for the Richmond event and fined $20,000 for two loose lug nuts.
One of NASCAR's cookie-cutter ovals is getting an overhaul. The Athletic is reporting NASCAR will attempt to reconfigure two-mile Auto Club Speedway into a half-mile short track in time for the 2022 season. The track out in Fontana, California, has had just one Cup Series date for much of the past decade; it would be the first short track added to the schedule since North Wilkesboro Speedway was removed after 1996.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Playoff drivers to finish in the top 13 positions at Darlington Sunday night; Erik Jones (the 2019 Southern 500 winner) was the only outlier in fourth.
Race this season where Kyle Busch has led 100 laps or more: Bristol Motor Speedway in May. He had seven such races in 2019 while earning the season championship.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
There's a reason why Joe Gibbs Racing is high on everyone's fantasy roster for Richmond. Martin Truex Jr. swept both races here in 2019 and is anxious for redemption after his Darlington late-race contact with Chase Elliott. Kyle Busch swept the races here in 2018 and led a grand total of 303 laps here last year. And Denny Hamlin? He's got a win and six top-five finishes in his last seven Cup starts.
One philosophy, and it's a fair one, is to stash these three on your roster and fill out the rest with scrubs. It might be enough to cash in as a 1-2-3 finish isn't out of the realm of possibility.
Matt Kenseth is a bit of a reach, I admit. He didn't run the races at Richmond last year and hasn't won at the track since 2015. However, the veteran who admitted this week he almost certainly won't be racing in 2021 had a reasonably good run at Bristol in May (15th). He's someone who comes cheap and has high upside at a track where the No. 42 team has run well in the past with Kyle Larson.
Austin Dillon has two career top-10 finishes at Richmond in 12 starts. Both of them have come since the start of 2018 as the Richard Childress Racing driver has gotten his act together here. A surprise second-place finish at Darlington can only give him momentum going forward.
How about rookie John Hunter Nemechek? The freshman starts outside the top 30 which gives him a higher upside due to position differential points. Nemechek has had some solid runs with Front Row Motorsports this season and father Joe won at this track with Hendrick Motorsports way back in 2003.
Daniel Suarez has an average finish at this track of 12.2 and was ninth the last time the Cup Series ran at Richmond in the fall of 2019. Unfortunately, inferior equipment with Gaunt Brothers Racing will limit his upside but a top-20 finish remains a possibility for him.
What Vegas Thinks
Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. are all tied with 9/2 odds according to vegasinsider.com. Joey Logano is next up at 7/1 as this race remains a bit more unpredictable considering it's NASCAR's first visit to the track this season with the current short track package.
Matt DiBenedetto might be a longshot worth taking. He's 80/1.
What I Think
I'm going to say it's the hometown hero, Denny Hamlin, breaking through to victory lane at Richmond for the first time since 2016. He continues to slug it out with Harvick as the duo will be locked into the Round of 12.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)