By Jenna Fryer, Associated Press
The hard part wasn’t dodging his way around a crash and then driving to the front of the field at Talladega Superspeedway. That was just instinct for Bubba Wallace.
The challenge was the 45 minutes after Wallace took the lead, when the sky opened and he anxiously sat in the rain — hoping, wishing, praying — that NASCAR would call off Monday’s rescheduled race and declare him the winner.
With a crowd gathered behind his pit stand chanting its support — one man told his 6-year-old son, clad in a Wallace shirt and jumping up and down along the fence, that he was “witnessing history” — NASCAR pulled the plug and Wallace became just the second Black driver to win a race at the Cup Series level.
“Got some credibility to my name now,” said Wallace, a first-time Cup winner in his 143 starts. “I’m just like, ‘Finally, I’m a winner and I’m a winner in the Cup level,’ and it’s just like ‘Hell yeah!’ It was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.”
This was so much more than just a first win.
Wallace is the first Black driver to win at the top level of the elite stock car series since Wendell Scott in 1963, a race where he wasn’t declared the victor until long after Buck Baker had already been rewarded the trophy. NASCAR at last presented Scott’s family with his trophy from that race two months ago.
“You can’t swim standing on the Bank!!,” tweeted Warrick Scott Sr., who is Scott’s grandson. “RIP Wendell Scott. Congratulations @bubbawallace!!” A second post showed his grandfather leaning against a car and read: “PaPa was there the whole time chilling in the rain.”
The Wallace victory earned praise from rapper Big Sean, the University of Tennessee football team and Bill Lester, a Black driver who raced intermittently in NASCAR from 1999 through a Trucks Series start this season, among others.
“Finally, it’s official, you’ve done it!” Lester posted. “So proud of you and what you’ve accomplished. Your win moves the @NASCAR needle forward on so many fronts. Glad I was a witness.”
The race was spotlighted on NBC’s “Nightly News” at the top of Monday’s broadcast, illustrating how culturally important Wallace’s win was for NASCAR, a predominately white sport with deep Southern roots and a longtime embrace of Confederate symbols.
As much as Wallace wanted the moment to be solely about his first career win, he couldn’t ignore the significance.
“It’s definitely been tough going to some of the tracks this year, we get some of the most boos now,” Wallace said. “Everybody says as long as they’re making noise that’s fine, but you know, I get booed for different reasons and that’s the tough thing to swallow. I appreciate all those who were there doing the rain dance with us, pulling for us, supporting me my whole career, but especially those who have supported me with everything that’s gone on the last 15-16 months.”
In June 2020 at Talladega, NASCAR discovered a noose in the garage stall assigned to Wallace. The finding came just a week after NASCAR had banned the Confederate flag at its events at Wallace’s urging.
The FBI investigated and found that the noose was tied at the end of the garage door pull and had been there for months, meaning Wallace was not a victim of a hate crime. Still, the series rallied around him and stood in solidarity with Wallace at the front of the grid before the race.
The flag ban continues to be an issue at Talladega, where a convoy of vehicles has paraded up and down Speedway Boulevard outside the main entrance of the speedway during all four race weekends since NASCAR announced the ban. The convoy was back this weekend and included one car pulling a trailer that contained a Civil War-era cannon.
Wallace has called the noose incident a low point and he’s been subjected to online harassment that last year even included a tweet from then-President Donald Trump that falsely accused Wallace of making up the noose. Although Wallace never saw the noose and was only told about it by NASCAR President Steve Phelps after the FBI had been summoned to investigate, he’s been accused by many in the public of orchestrating a hoax.
When Monday’s race was halted with Wallace as the leader, social media was ablaze with comments attacking the 27-year-old Alabama native whose birthday is later this week.
“They just are haters. That’s all you can really say about it,” said Denny Hamlin, Wallace’s team co-owner and a fellow driver. “I try to say to him, ‘Don’t get your motivation trying to prove haters wrong. Instead get your motivation from trying to do the people that support you proud.’
“That’s where the motivation is going to come from, is the people that are going to support you through the good times and the bad times,” Hamlin said.
Wallace had driven through a crash and to the front of the field five laps before the second rain stoppage of the race. When he surged to the front, and with the entire field realizing that rain could halt the race at any time, runner-up Brad Keselowski recognized Wallace had likely just won the race with his pass.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh, geez. I wish I would have made that move,'” Keselowski said. “(His) was the right move at the right time.”
NASCAR tried to dry the track for nearly 45 minutes, but called things off as sunset approached and the rain showed no sign of ceasing.
Wallace had been waiting atop his pit stand and celebrated wildly with his crew when the decision came. Wallace is in his first season driving for 23X1 Racing, a team owned by both Hamlin and Michael Jordan.
“I’m so happy for Bubba and our entire 23XI Racing team. This is a huge milestone and a historic win for us,” Jordan said in a tweeted statement. “From the day we signed him, I knew Bubba had the talent to win and Denny and I could not be more proud of him. Let’s go!”
Wallace broke down in tears after he returned to his parked No. 23 Toyota, the car number picked for Jordan, who wore 23 in the NBA.
“This is for all the kids out there that want to have an opportunity and whatever they want to achieve, and be the best at what they want to do,” Wallace said as he choked back tears. “You’re going to go through a lot of (BS). But you always got to stick true to your path and not let the nonsense get to you.
“Stay strong. Stay humble. Stay hungry. Been plenty of times when I wanted to give up.”
Wallace went to a makeshift victory lane inside an empty garage stall to celebrate with his team, which made a personnel change three races ago and named Bootie Barker his crew chief. It was the first victory for Barker in more than 400 races as a Cup crew chief.
The organization was formed a year ago and Wallace was the centerpiece based on all the corporations that entered NASCAR in support of Wallace and his social justice efforts. 23XI will expand to two cars next season with former series champion Kurt Busch joining the team.
No playoff drivers won a race at Talladega this weekend — Trucks, Xfinity and Cup all had first-time winners for the first time at the same track on the same weekend — and only Hamlin is locked into the third round of the Cup playoffs headed into next week’s elimination race at Charlotte, North Carolina.
Hamlin, a three-time Daytona 500 winner, celebrated with Wallace following his own seventh-place finish.
“It’s just way more emotional because I know how difficult it is. These guys have worked so hard over the last 10 months to put this team together,” Hamlin said. “We’re still in the beginning stages of our team. We’re still growing. We’ve got some great things on the horizon. It’s just a great morale booster for everyone.”
Keselowski finished second and was followed by Team Penske teammate Joey Logano in a pair of Fords. Busch was fourth in a Chevrolet.
Kevin Harvick, Christopher Bell, Alex Bowman and William Byron head to Charlotte in danger of elimination.
The final race in the second round of the playoffs is at The Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The hybrid road course/oval is where the field of 12 will be trimmed to eight. Chase Elliott is the two-time defending race winner at The Roval. His victory last October was his first of three wins in the final five races that lofted Elliott to his first Cup championship.