For Bubba Wallace, it couldn’t wait.
Moments earlier, Wallace had fainted while answering questions for a throng of print and online media. The driver blamed it on anxiety over mistakes made in his first start in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The reality might be dehydration on a hot, humid day at Pocono Raceway. Either way, he was getting carted to the infield care center for evaluation.
But once their little vehicle passed Victory Lane, a checkup would have to wait. What needed to be checked out first was best friend Ryan Blaney achieving a lifelong dream.
Hugs and congratulations followed. Heck, Blaney might not even know Wallace had a medical issue until the two find each other in the early hours of Monday morning.
“He’ll probably still want to go party tonight,” Wallace joked. “So we’ll be ready for that.”
Twitter quickly proved he wasn’t kidding.
Told the media after the race…@blaney would be getting home late tonight…But will still wanna party..
Yup.. 🤷♂️😅😴🤘 pic.twitter.com/RYwW00pgeT
— Bubba Wallace (@BubbaWallace) June 12, 2017
Just like that, Wallace and Blaney, their lifelong friendship has become the focus of the NASCAR world. One became the first African-American to compete at the Cup level in a decade, running 26th on a day defined by pit road penalties and self-imposed mistakes.
“To speed four, five times, same segment, that was pretty tough to swallow,” Wallace said, blaming the issue on adjusting to the new, digital dash in his Cup car. “I didn’t have everything lined up, and thought I had the right mindset going into it.”
But as his press conference wore on, the nerves wearing off Wallace recognized the depth of his accomplishment. All the friends and family who had flown in to see this start, even his next-door neighbor became the focus. He saw the positives of bringing the car home in one piece and giving Richard Petty Motorsports a baseline to build from.
“I knew jumping into this that it wasn’t going to be easy,” Wallace said. “I’ve always said you shuffle — you get shuffled back in trucks and XFINITY, you lose seven, ten spots. You shuffle here, you get 25th to 30th. These guys are good.”
No one was happier for Wallace than Blaney, who had waited patiently for his friend to get a chance. As his Pocono debut weekend rolled on, the duo was well aware of the magnitude of the moment. They took pictures next to their iconic rides, Blaney in the No. 21 and Wallace running the No. 43. David Pearson and Richard Petty made a sport out of running those cars for a generation.
“I’d like to get 50 percent or 5 percent of what [Blaney] won since that picture happened,” Wallace joked. “I think I was a good luck charm.”
Blaney, of course went on to make the most of this historic opportunity. After two years of close calls, building toward victory he seized an opportunity in Pocono’s final stage. Armed with fresh rubber, he breezed by a once-dominant Kyle Busch up front. Minutes later, with Kevin Harvick breathing down his neck for five laps he kept a second NASCAR champion settling for second place.
The checkered flew and Blaney was a winner. In the backyard of a track relatively close to the family’s hometown in Ohio, he had come out with a Cup trophy his dad tried 473 times to grab… only to come up short.
“I felt like if he would have got the right opportunities, he would have done very well,” Blaney said of father Dave. “Getting the Blaney [name] in Cup Series Victory Lane, it’s neat.”
Congratulations immediately flowed from everywhere. Veterans like Brad Keselowski, who interviewed Blaney; fellow youngsters like Erik Jones, who said the win was crucial for the sport’s “young guns;” and legends like Mario Andretti, who tweeted his excitement over the race.
— Mario Andretti (@MarioAndretti) June 11, 2017
“It was so cool on the cool-down lap to see everybody come up and give you a thumbs-up,” he said. “That to me is so cool, to show all the support that they have. Whether it’s your best friend or your worst enemy, people you’ve had run-ins with. They were congratulating me, and that’s cool.”
But the biggest moment for him, especially with his dad elsewhere was that hug from Wallace. It was a private moment on the public stage, both young men achieving lifelong goals they’d dreamed about since playing in the backyard as kids.
“We grew up together, they’re all family,” Wallace said. “It’s really cool to be best friends with him, and to see him get it on this special day for the sport after that picture we took this morning, all the stars were aligned for him.”
It’s a bond that’s genuine in an age where those athlete friendships can seem manufactured. NASCAR has received a public relations gift in that sense, two people they don’t need to force to get along. Their connection as people is palpable, their energy contagious as they feed off each other on and off the track.
“We need Bubba in the Cup Series more,” Blaney joked. “The one start he makes, I win the damn race. He needs to keep running.”
Don’t worry; Wallace isn’t going anywhere soon. The sport can only hope this weekend was just Chapter 1 in a long, detailed saga that plays out between the drivers of Nos. 21 and 43.