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Will Richard Petty Motorsports Return to Racing Relevance?

For 2018, RPM will campaign Chevrolet’s new Camaro ZL1 as part of its alliance with RCR (Photo: RPM)

For Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM), the game has radically transformed for 2018.  And therein lies the opportunity to perhaps turn the corner on what has been a mediocre decade for the team co-owned by arguably the most iconic driver and owner in NASCAR’s history.

For 2018, RPM has proclaimed a new partnership with Richard Childress Racing (RCR).  As a result, RPM will swap Ford Fusions for Chevrolet Camaros, receive engineering support from RCR, and use ECR powerplants.

It’s a fresh revival, as RPM will relocate to a new shop in Welcome, NC adjoining RCR, and will not retain any of its old car chassis, but instead rely on RCR to supply the new cars for the initial races of the 2018 season.  The team’s move is already underway, with plans to be situated in their new building later January.

More prominently, Darrell Wallace Jr., RPM’s new driver, is stepping up from tours through both the XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series, and many would like see Wallace Jr breakthrough given his perseverance in the sport, having endured the challenge of not having a full-time ride since losing his XFINITY sponsorship after the first 12 races of 2017.

Wallace Jr has shown concrete potential, finishing 3rd in 2014 in the Camping World Truck series while winning four races, and competing two full seasons in XFINITY, averaging a 13.6 finish with flashes of success evidenced by six top 5 finishes.

As recently as September, there was rampant speculation that RPM might close, having not renewed its race shop lease, the departure of driver Aric Almirola to Stewart-Haas Racing, and expected loss of long-time sponsor Smithfield Foods as well.

Many believe that this association will benefit everyone — driver, team and sport.  Richard Petty Motorsports has stumbled in recent years, with Almirola winning only one race in six seasons.

Wallace is only the fourth African-American driver to ever compete at NASCAR’s highest level.  Nicknamed “Bubba”, Wallace Jr is one of the more charismatic and talented rising stars.  His social media engagement showcases much of his extracurricular personality, including his penchant for death metal jam sessions with young gun Ryan Blaney, who will drive for Penske Racing next year.

Bubba Wallace Jr will be taking the wheel of the RPM #43 Camaro in 2018 (Photo: Scott Grau/Getty Images)

Wallace Jr potentially opens novel sponsorship doors as he represents the sport’s surging youth and multicultural movement, one of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity graduates who can broaden the sport’s appeal to untapped fan demographics, while Petty has enduring charm to all age groups given his iconic legacy in the sport.

“We’re starting with a clean slate,” Petty said, which clearly is an understatement, given the new driver, car, RCR alliance, and sponsor relationships.

Now 80 years old, Richard Petty still exudes the racing genes in his blood.  The King has won 200 NASCAR Cup races and seven championships.  Petty savors every weekend at the speedway, and sometimes you can’t get him off the track.  At the throwback Darlington Southern 500 race last season, Petty served as the honorary pace car driver in his 1967 Plymouth Belvedere.  Instead of heading to the pits one lap prior to the field getting the green, Petty stayed out, bringing the field on an extra parade lap, with NASCAR waving the black flag at the King.  Fans ate it up, and the King just flashed that Cheshire cat grin while ignoring the command to come in.

Certainly, the King is optimistic about RPM’s future, proclaiming that “Chevrolet has been a consistent winner in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series for a long time and we’re proud to be part of the GM family again.  We feel we can immediately win with Chevrolet and our new alliance with RCR.”

That’s a bold proclamation for a team that won only one race since 2013.  Yet, finding race speed requires investment, and investment requires sponsorship.  So far, that equation is still an incomplete algorithm.  More likely, RPM will rely on piecemeal sponsorship in 2018 while searching for a more complete sponsorship relationship in 2019.

Richard Petty bring his infectious enthusiasm for NASCAR to every race weekend (Photo: Sherri Swann-Bottano/Motorsports Unplugged)

The US Air Force just renewed its sponsorship for a 10th consecutive season with RPM, and STP also is expected back at some level.  Additionally, Click n’ Close (a digital mortgage approval platform) will be featured as a principal sponsor of the #43 car for at least three races, debuting at the 2018 Daytona 500.  Smithfield also will provide some support to RPM next year as part of its transition to SHR, but it’s unclear whether paint schemes will be involved.

Yet, performance on the track would go a long way in the sponsorship hunt.  For a fledging mid-pack team that averaged a 20.6 finish over the past nine years, a return to playoff contention is wishful ambition.  RPM’s sole victory since 2013 came in a rain-shortened restrictor-plate race.  Frankly, RPM has simply not been a playoff contending organization.

Last year, RPM downsized to a single-car operation to focus its efforts solely on the #43 car.  Yet, the team failed to substantially improve its performance in what became Almirola’s lame duck season.

Says Petty, “There’s going to be a bunch of different things that we’re going to do.  When you see us at Daytona, we show up down there, it’s going to be a completely different RPM than what it’s been in the past.”

Then again, RPM now has all the pieces available and needs to deliver solid results.  No doubt that Wallace’s rookie full-time Cup season will be a tryout, and the pressure will be on.  RPM hasn’t disclosed a specific contract term, but there is clearly incentive for their new driver.

Petty puts it bluntly, yet the candor is apparent: “If he (Wallace) can get the job done, he’s got a lifetime job.  If he doesn’t, then he won’t last long.”

By Ron Bottano

Let’s connect on Twitter at @rbottano

For Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM), the game has radically transformed for 2018.  And therein lies the opportunity to perhaps turn the corner.