By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — 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 the rescheduled race Oct. 4 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.
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.
The race was spotlighted on NBC’s “Nightly News” at the top of the broadcast Oct. 4, 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.”
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.
When the race was halted with Wallace as the leader, social media was ablaze with comments attacking the 27-year-old Alabama native.
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.
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.