Did You Notice? … Bubba Wallace has a history of confrontations in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series? We’ll start with the now, what everyone’s still talking about three days after the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL. Sunday’s incident (Sept. 29) with Alex Bowman was easily his most serious to date.
The two drivers made contact multiple times during the Bank of America ROVAL 400. On lap 1, Bowman lost control on the backstretch and happened to hit Wallace’s No. 43 while spinning out.
Later on in the race, Bowman recovered and started slicing his way through the field. But when he got back to Wallace, he found himself blocked. Bubba kept coming down in front of the No. 88, refusing to let him by while making indecent hand gestures in the process.
So Bowman, frustrated, decided to spin him out.
“I got flipped off for every single straightaway on the entire racetrack for three laps,” Bowman said. “I got flipped off by [Wallace] for three or four laps in a row at Richmond, so I’m just over it. Gotta stand up for myself at some point.”
Bowman kept fighting back, finishing second but was suffering from dehydration after the race. He was busy getting medical attention when Wallace went and threw water in his face, calling out plenty of cuss words along the way.
“Smooth move of playing the sick card,” Wallace said afterward. “So I wouldn’t bust him in the mouth.”
Just this incident alone felt over the line. NASCAR’s Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell said he’ll “talk to Wallace” about his behavior later this week. But if anything serious was going to happen here, penalties would have already been handed down.
To their credit, NASCAR has been pretty consistent in sticking to its “have at it, boys” philosophy, letting drivers display raw emotion without getting involved. But for Wallace, Sunday marked the fourth time since the start of 2018 we’ve seen a confrontation from him at the Cup level. Three of them have occurred in just the last three months.
Watkins Glen, August 2019. In the Cup race, Wallace and Kyle Busch made contact that caused Wallace to spin out on lap 39. Just 23 laps later, he returned the favor and blatantly spun Busch in retaliation. The incident came with an expletive-filled tirade directed at Busch both during and after the event. Keep in mind Busch was Bubba’s boss when he raced the Gander Outdoors Truck Series back in 2013-2014.
“I’m going to get my respect on the track, and I don’t care who it is,” Wallace said to reporters. “I won’t put up with no sh*t. So I flat out wrecked his ass back.”
Pocono. July 2019. Wallace gets in hot water with Daniel Suarez after giving him the finger on the racetrack during the Gander RV 400. (Sensing a pattern here?) It leads to an animated discussion on pit road in which Wallace insists he was joking. He wound up 22nd in the race while Suarez was 24th.
Bubba Wallace and Daniel Suarez had an animated discussion post race on pit road. Both said there was no issue between them. pic.twitter.com/Ii4JwmBAfI
— Jordan Bianchi (@Jordan_Bianchi) July 28, 2019
“Where I came from, you can kick someone’s butt for doing that,” Suarez said to NBC Sports. “He said he was playing, but I’m not dumb. I know he wasn’t.
“We are good friends, but sometimes he drives a little bit over his head on the racetrack. There have been a couple of times he’s been a little bit too aggressive to myself in different situations.”
Daytona 500, February 2018. After a career-best second-place finish, Wallace wrecks Denny Hamlin at the line and expressed frustration over the contact. Both cars wound up destroyed despite their solid runs.
“I want to see the replay before I say anything stupid,” Wallace said. “He might need to take some Adderall for that one.”
For Hamlin, those comments were stupid enough. Wallace was removed from Hamlin’s basketball and golf leagues outside the racetrack for several months; their friendship went through a rough patch.
All of this behavior, of course, came from a driver whose incidents equal the number of top-10 finishes (four) he’s earned in two-plus years on the Cup circuit. That’s not a great track record to risk getting aggressive, especially when you drive for one of the sport’s legendary names in Richard Petty.
But NASCAR is also stuck between a rock and a hard place with Wallace. It’s a series not far removed from the racism of its early days; Wallace is the first full-time African-American driver to reach the Cup level in decades. The sport understands how his presence can grow the fan base, marketing him in ways like a Facebook Watch Behind The Wall documentary last year. His close friendship with Ryan Blaney has left him front and center as a wingman for the more successful Team Penske driver. Wallace is also a perfect fit for new millennial type partnerships with Barstool Sports.
His struggles are also relatable to fans – and he’s open about them. In May, Wallace surprised reporters at Kansas Speedway and claimed he’d been privately battling depression for years.
“I’m on the verge of breaking down,” he said. “I am what I am.”
So could Sunday’s actions actually be a cry for help for Wallace in his own way? It’s a potential opportunity here for NASCAR to step in, setting him up with the right resources if needed. The last thing you want is someone battling mental demons trying to turn left alongside another competitor at nearly 200 miles an hour.
At the same time, Wallace’s volatility calls into question how long his leash should be. As it is, the last two years have been a Herculean effort to acquire proper sponsorship for the No. 43. Is this behavior what you want representing your brand? On-track, a recent spurt of strong finishes have offered hope for improvement in 2020 but the reality is Wallace still sits 26th in the Cup standings. He’s six points behind Daniel Hemric, fired after just one year and similar on-track results with Richard Childress Racing.
But Hemric was never a problem off the track. Neither was Ricky Stenhouse Jr., handed a pink slip just last week despite running four positions above Wallace in the standings. Some might say Richard Petty Motorsports is exercising a little extra patience here.
Hopefully, Steve O’Donnell can make that message clear that Wallace’s chances are running out; it would be a shame to lose one of NASCAR’s most popular, outspoken voices.
But if Bubba doesn’t listen? This pattern of behavior won’t stop. And I think we all know how it ends.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- I’m torn NASCAR’s decision not to reinstate the Thorsport Racing trucks back into the Gander Outdoor Truck Series playoffs. Ilmor admitted it was a mistake on their end which caused the spec engines used by now-eliminated Johnny Sauter and Grant Enfinger to blow up. (Matt Crafton’s did, too, but he survived into the next round.) A NASCAR-provided motor, in essence, was the whole reason these trucks didn’t make it. So shouldn’t the sanctioning body take ownership over its own rules that caused the problem? At the same time… allowing these guys back in would set a dangerous precedent. Mechanical luck has been a part of racing for decades and only a select number of these motors completely fell apart. Maybe Thorsport’s setup was a little harder on them than their other competitors? And if Sauter and Enfinger won either of the other playoff races… they wouldn’t be sitting on the outside looking in.
- NASCAR’s new rule changes for 2020 feel like minor tweaks at best. Cutting the at-track roster from 12 to 10? Sure, that’ll save a little cash. But limiting wind tunnel time to 150 hours? That’s really not going to swing the pendulum back toward lower-tier teams. The gap financially between someone like Spire Motorsports and Team Penske is just so wide. More drastic measures are needed when the Gen-7 car comes in 2021 to get new owners interested and secure the long-term financial future of this sport.