On June 11 at Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway, 23-year-old Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. fulfilled his dream of becoming a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver. And his debut in stock car racing’s premier series came in one of the sport’s most iconic rides — Richard Petty’s No. 43 Ford.

“It’s funny, (Ryan) Blaney texted me this morning, actually woke me up this morning, 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,’” Wallace said during a press conference on Friday of the Pocono weekend. “That’s huge. That’s awesome for me to get my first start driving the No. 43 for Richard Petty and everybody at RPM.”

In addition, Wallace, who was subbing for the injured Aric Almirola, became the first African-American driver since Bill Lester in 2006 to start a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.

But in a little less than a month, Wallace went from driving an iconic car in the sport’s premier series to being a spectator. With Almirola healed and back in the seat and his Roush Fenway Racing NASCAR XFINITY Series team shuttered due to lack of sponsorship, Wallace was faced with a tough reality.

“I need to stay relevant in the sport and try to get some rides whether it’s XFINITY, Truck or Cup Series stuff. A lot of people don’t know that I’m a free agent. Once I climbed out of the No. 43 car for good, I’m not tied to Roush anymore and I’m not tied to RPM,” Wallace told SPEED SPORT. “I’m a free agent, so I’m open to phone calls. Ford is trying to help. Everybody is trying. It’s just a matter of what door is open right now.”
Wallace made steady and impressive progress during his four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series starts for Richard Petty Motorsports. He finished 26th at Pocono Raceway, 19th at Michigan Int’l Speedway, 15th at Daytona Int’l Speedway and 11th at Kentucky Speedway.

It was a solid audition and Petty later said he would like to see Wallace return to the team in a second car if sponsorship can be secured.

Wallace’s journey to the NASCAR Cup Series started in go-kart racing when he was 9 years old.

“We put about two years into that and worked our way up through the asphalt ranks,” said Wallace, who was born in Mobile, Ala., but moved to Concord, N.C., when he was 2. “We graduated from that and went to Bandoleros, Legend Cars, late models, and eventually got our start in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series with Rev Racing and the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program.”

Wallace’s success in Legend Cars foreshadowed his future on-track achievements.

“Those things are so throttle sensitive and light weight, so it’s all about throttle control and car control with those cars,” he explained. “There’s a lot of straight braking — you don’t want to be braking while you’re turning — so that helps out a lot with some of the tracks that we go to now. The main thing is the power-to-weight ratio and getting used to that. Being able to lay the power down smoothly and not spin the tires is the biggest thing in those cars.”

Wallace made his NASCAR K&N Pro Series debut in 2010 and spent three seasons in that nomadic series, winning six races. The next two years saw him behind the wheel of a Kyle Busch Motorsports entry in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series as part of the Joe Gibbs Racing driver development program.