Brian Lawdermilk | Getty Images

Wallace, RPM pay tribute to John Andretti, Kobe Bryant at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Bubba Wallace and Richard Petty Motorsports savored some good news in the days before arriving at Daytona International Speedway this week, renewing their U.S. Air Force sponsorship and bringing back a familiar shark-toothed paint scheme for Speedweeks.

That design will carry more meaning for Sunday’s Daytona 500 with two solemn memorials on the No. 43 Chevrolet. A decal on the front roof pillar pays tribute to former Petty driver John Andretti, who died Jan. 30 after a long battle with cancer. Part of the rear decklid features a tribute to NBA star Kobe Bryant, his daughter and the seven other victims of the helicopter crash that claimed their lives Jan. 26.

Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

“It was a given with John Andretti driving the 43 years ago and being part of the RPM family,” Wallace said after posting the 32nd-fastest qualifying speed Sunday. “I wanted to do something special for Kobe and all the victims there. I was going to put his name where my name was on the door, but then we were like, we need to honor every single person there and I agreed with that. We decided to come up with a cool decal … and it came out really cool with the Lakers colors, which is pretty cool. It offsets from our Air Force scheme, but just a lot of people riding with us for the 500 on Sunday.”

RELATED: Daytona Speedweeks schedule

Sunday’s Great American Race represents a reunion for Wallace, who will pair with crew chief Jerry Baxter for the 2020 season. The veteran Baxter was atop the pit box for five of Wallace’s six career Gander Trucks victories during their time together with Kyle Busch Motorsports (2013-14).

Wallace’s best Cup Series finish to date remains his emotional runner-up outcome in his first Daytona 500 in 2018. So far this year, Wallace has topped the chart in second practice for the 500, but warned not to place too much emphasis on the early stat sheet.

“So practice is another thing,” Wallace said. “Everybody’s like, ‘hey, you’ve got a really good car.’ I’m like, we drafted and no one else did. So I don’t mean to be that guy, but just giving you realistic facts there. But I do get excited coming to the speedway stuff, just because our program’s been so solid. … It’s just coming to these races, I think for all the small teams, you get excited about these because anybody can win these races. We’re excited to get going. It’s the first race of the year, get the blood flowing again.”