RPM or elsewhere: Where will Bubba Wallace be better off in 2021?

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As Bubba Wallace weighs offers from Richard Petty Motorsports and at least Chip Ganassi Racing, the key issue is where will Wallace be better off in 2021.

Asked Wednesday what’s important to him, Wallace noted the family atmosphere at Richard Petty Motorsports but also said: “Obviously you want to be competitive. I came into this sport wanting to win races and be a household hame on the track, so we have a lot of work to do as a team and together to get there.”

While COVID-19 has made this season unlike any other in NASCAR’s history and Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 team had a driver change in April and a crew chief change in August, statistically, the No. 42 car and Wallace’s No. 43 car are even over the past three months.

The No. 42 with Matt Kenseth has a 20.11 average finish since the season resumed in May. Wallace has a 20.16 average finish in the same time. The difference is one position over an 18-race span. Although Kenseth has the best finish in that stretch with his runner-up result at Indianapolis, Wallace has three top 10s compared to Kenseth’s two in that time. Kenseth has scored 316 points since May; Wallace has scored 313 points for RPM.

Bubba Wallace Matt Kenseth
Bubba Wallace leads Matt Kenseth earlier this season at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Eighteen races is only half a Cup season and doesn’t always provide the clearest picture as teams cycle through ups and downs. Kenseth, who did not compete last season, took over the No. 42 ride after the team fired Kyle Larson in April for uttering a racial slur during an online race.

Asked about talks with Chip Ganassi Racing for next year, Kenseth told NBC Sports last weekend that “we really haven’t had any very meaningful discussions really about any of that to be honest with you. I think that when things are going as bad as they’re going I don’t think either side is probably super anxious about talking about what’s happening six or eight months for now.

“I think we’re more worried about trying to get this ship righted as soon as possible and start getting some finishes and start running up front. … We really believe that the cars and the team and everything, if we have a really good day, is capable of winning. I think that’s probably what is at the forefront of our mind right now, trying to get running good first of all then hopefully executing and possibly get in a position where we could sneak one out.”

Wallace, 26, is among a number of free agents after this season. The list narrowed with Ryan Blarney signing a contract extension with Team Penske earlier this year, and Brad Keselowski recently signing an extension with Team Penske. Erik Jones is among those looking for a ride next season with rookie Christopher Bell taking Jones’ ride in the No. 20 next season at Joe Gibbs Racing.

As for what he’ll do next season, Wallace said Wednesday: “Nothing set in stone yet, still all being worked out, ironed out. Hopefully we’ll have that announcement coming soon.”

Among the benefits at Ganassi is it is a two-car team with former champion Kurt Busch. Richard Petty Motorsports is a single-car team but is aligned with Richard Childress Racing and Germain Racing, providing alliance teammates in Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick and Ty Dillon.

An important factor will be sponsorship. Wednesday’s announcement of a multi-year personal services deal between Columbia Sportswear and Wallace includes sponsorship for at least one race. This is the second sponsorship deal for Wallace in a month. On July 14, RPM revealed a multi-year sponsorship deal with Cash App. The deal included primary sponsorship in five races this season.

“I was always told win and they’ll come,” Wallace said of sponsorship. “And we won a couple, we won a few in the Truck Series and still fighting sponsorship issues. I haven’t won much since then. But we’ve been doing things. We’ve been winning off the racetrack. I think that’s helped being much bigger than an athlete, standing up for human beings. It’s something that we often don’t get to do just because we’re put on a pedestal.

Bubba Wallace’s most recent top-10 finish came last weekend at Michigan. He placed ninth in the first of the two Cup races there. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“With the spotlight that I put myself into, being vocal about what’s going on the world, has created opportunities for new partners. Look at Columbia here. A brand new partner, a part of the sport, a part of RPM, a part of the Bubba Wallace brand. We’re doing good things off the racetrack that helps our on-track performance. So, we will just continue those ways.

“This doesn’t even compare to the little bit of sponsor momentum we’ve had in years past. This is an incredible opportunity for me; one the best years in my racing career from that standpoint. We’re building up on a great future here, getting these partnerships and deals in place; to set the team, the partner, and myself up for great success and we’ll continue to do that.”

Finding sponsorship, deciding on where to race next year and the role Wallace has elevated to in social activism can be draining. Wallace said in late June he was “wore the hell out.” Wallace said Wednesday that he’s feeling better.

“I definitely feel a lot more upbeat,” he said. “There’s a lot of positive momentum on our side. Big things being worked on behind the scenes like this (Columbia Sportswear) that we’re excited to share with people. It’s part of it. You go through the wringer. It makes you a better person at the end of the day. Maybe it’s a new outlet for you to explore, like I said about being outspoken about things that are going on in the country and in the world, and you want to be a part of it. And that’s how I’ve felt. I didn’t know what to expect.

“You know me, I’m always just the ‘do it and figure out everything after’ and so that’s just a part of Bubba Wallace in everyday life and we’ll continue to go on. I’m always ready for whatever is thrown at me. I try to handle it in the best way I can.

“I’ll get beat-up and worn down about it and you’ll hear about it because I wear my heart on my sleeve. But all in all, we’re refreshed.”

Giving him a chance to focus on the final four regular-season races to make the playoffs and where he will race next season.

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