KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Bubba Wallace made history Monday in the rain-shortened YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
With the win, Wallace became the second Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race and the first since Hall of Famer Wendell Scott won his only career Cup Series race Dec. 1, 1963, in Jacksonville, Florida.
The victory came in Wallace’s 143rd career Cup Series start.
“Finally, I’m a winner again,” Wallace said. “It’s been four years since the Michigan Truck race — and I’m a winner. I’m a winner at the Cup level, so — ‘hell, yeah’ — that’s what I’m saying. But then you think about everything that follows suit with the history being made. There were a lot of firsts today within our team, within our organization.”
Wallace — a native of Mobile, Alabama, which is 250 miles from Talladega — had led five laps before the second rainstorm stopped the race after 117 laps. The race, which already had been postponed from Sunday, had been scheduled to go another 71 laps before Mother Nature forced NASCAR officials to wave the red flag.
“I know now it’s going to be, ‘Well, he got a win because of the rain,’” Wallace said. “Well, everybody knew it was going to rain. We were able to make a move there to keep us out front and the caution fell at the right time.”
Wallace admitted he’s among those critics — though he’s hard on himself as a competitor, not for some of the cynical reasons certain segments of race fans chastise him.
“This was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders,” Wallace said. “... When you go winless for four years, I’m so hard on myself, and I’m always pessimistic about why we ran like this or ran like that, it sends you down a dark path, so I am my own worst critic. ... Today, I am like, ‘Hell yeah, we got a win,’ but then I’m like, ‘Hey, you only got a win because it rained.’ So, I still can’t let myself just enjoy it fully.”
Wallace wants to be regarded as one of the sport’s greats, so he knows that will take more than one win.
Still, he recognizes the gravity of the moment.
“I think about the next generation that’s looking, that wants to be part of this sport,” Wallace said. “I think this gives them a little bit more motivation, a little bit more fuel in the tank. It’s important for that. We look at the demographic of our sport and we want it to change so desperately. With everything that’s gone on in the last 16 months, we are trending upward, but we still have a lot of work to do. I know the biggest work that can be done is on the race track, and we were able to do that.”
Wallace fended off a ferocious challenge from Brad Keselowki, who finished second and was trying to get the win to ensure a spot in the Cup Series Playoffs Round of 8.
Wallace, who has been eliminated from the playoffs, drives for the new 23XI Racing team, a team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan that is making its NASCAR Cup Series debut this season.
During the 2018 season, Wallace became a full-time Cup Series driver but struggled to break through with only one top-five finish in each of his first three seasons.
Wallace now has three top-five finishes in 2021 alone and has led more laps (62) than the previous three seasons with Richard Petty Motorsports combined (34).
“I can’t believe that it’s all come together and we have a win,” Hamlin said.
Wallace’s tenure in the Cup Series hasn’t been without controversy.
He began to use his platform as the only Black full-time Cup Series driver to advocate for change, speaking out against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 and calling on NASCAR to ban Confederate battle flag displays at races in June 2020.
Wallace also raced in June 2020 with a Black Lives Matter paint scheme.
Later in June 2020, controversy erupted when a pull-down rope that had been fashioned into a noose was found in his garage stall at Talladega.
An FBI investigation determined that the noose had been tied into the rope since at least 2019 and wasn’t meant to target Wallace, prompting his vilification on social media for perpetrating a hoax.
“I get hate tweets as well, because I hired him,” Hamlin said. “Those people just need to grow up.”
A survey of the pull-down ropes at all 29 NASCAR tracks found 11 garages with knotted ropes but only one — the one Wallace happened to be placed in for the Talladega race — having a noose.
NASCAR required sensitivity and unconscious bias training for its personnel in the wake of the incident.
“I wouldn’t say it was a low point,” Wallace said. “I’ve had low points in my life, and that wasn’t the same feeling. This was just a hurdle that we needed to climb over ... [so] it’s super special. With everything that’s gone on, it’s fitting that we got our first win here.”
Wallace owns six career wins in the Camping World Truck Series, including four during the 2014 season, but had been winless in all NASCAR races since the 2017 LTI Printing 200 on Aug. 12, 2017, at Michigan International Speedway.
“I appreciate everybody that’s been in my camp to help me stay focused on the things that matter and eliminate the BS that I had to deal with on a daily basis,” Wallace said. “It’s the moments like this where I can go back and thank them and appreciate them, because we’re here, we’re a winner and I’ve got some credibility to my name now.”
Wallace admitted he’s had “some sleepless nights” and has talked to “professionals” in processing some of the non-racing impacts and incidents he’s dealt with as the only full-time Black driver in the Cup Series.