Did You Notice? … The reactions in the wake of Bubba Wallace‘s first ever NASCAR Cup Series win at Talladega Superspeedway?
It’s the first time since December 1963 a Black driver has visited victory lane, 10 months into Wallace’s first season running with the most famous minority owner in NASCAR history, Michael Jordan. That’s a landmark moment for a sport looking to be more representative of the country as a whole.
It’s also invited its share of detractors. As an example of what Wallace deals with on a daily basis, not every race fan feels so warm and fuzzy about what others consider a dramatic achievement. A rain-shortened win (71 laps) combined with the timing of when NASCAR stopped the race left some crying foul, continuing the polarization surrounding Wallace since the infamous June 2020 noose incident at Talladega.
Win was given to you
— Andy Plumley (@plumley_andy) October 5, 2021
More of these comments can be found here and here (fair warning: not all of them are G-rated) in places that would celebrate the first-time achievement of just about any other driver. Call me crazy, but Justin Haley‘s rain-shortened win with Spire Motorsports at Daytona International Speedway two years ago didn’t quite generate the same amount of backlash.
There’s a simple reason for it: Fans feel Wallace was gifted opportunities as a minority, in much the same way Danica Patrick ran at the Cup level for years despite underwhelming results.
So let’s take a minute to examine why Wallace is here and whether this race could have been fixed. Wallace, in the midst of celebrating his win, was asked what the victory meant for the sport’s Drive For Diversity program, designed to provide opportunities for him, Kyle Larson and other minority drivers since its inception 17 years ago.
“The diversity program is continuing to shine,” Wallace said. “I still continue to say without that deal back in 2010, 2011, I don’t know if I would be here. I don’t know if I would be in the top three levels of our sport without that deal.”
It’s an advantage the sport felt necessary in the wake of decades without the type of diversity you see in other stick-and-ball sports throughout the nation. Yet even with its existence, after several dozen drivers have gone through the program, Wallace remains the only full-time Black driver in any of the sport’s top three series. Only three drivers in the history of the program: Wallace, Daniel Suarez and Larson, have risen to make a Cup start. One could argue, rather effectively, than even a de facto assist isn’t fully balancing out the disadvantage.
Defying those odds, Wallace has come the furthest of any Black person who went through the program. He spent three-plus years running Cup for Richard Petty Motorsports, a single-car team with a legendary figurehead (Petty) but without the resources to compete for a playoff spot. Erik Jones, who replaced Wallace at the team this season, has an average finish marginally better (20.0 to 21.1) and sits without a top-five finish 31 races in (Wallace had one in 2020). It’s hard to say, based on those results, Wallace was dragging the team down considering Jones is a former NASCAR playoff driver for Joe Gibbs and a Southern 500 winner.
Meanwhile, when Jordan and Hamlin recruited Wallace for 23XI Racing, it was in part due to the driver developing a knack for superspeedway racing during his three-plus years of running the Cup Series. Entering Talladega, he’d earned three top-five finishes in 16 previous pack racing starts, including a runner-up finish in the 2018 Daytona 500.
“Just look at the results, right?” co-owner Denny Hamlin said when asked about the driver’s past performance at this track type. “A lot of times he got into incidents, but a lot of times he was up front when he got into them. He’s just got a knack for it.”
Wallace has utilized that skill set in a year where 23XI Racing remains a step behind, as building their Cup program up to match the multi-car giants of Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing takes time. He emerged as a 2021 Daytona 500 contender, sitting inside the top five and leading a lap until a tire problem led to an unscheduled green flag stop.
The next pack race, at Talladega in April, Wallace led 16 laps despite Joey Logano’s No. 22 Ford landing on his hood during an early wreck. But some struggles in working with Toyota teammates left Wallace out of position down the stretch, winding up 19th.
Daytona’s race in August was much better, with Wallace leading eight laps and finishing second when a last-lap wreck provided an opening to move up. Then came this race, where the No. 23 Toyota started 19th and emerged as a contender as the day went on. He led the last five laps of the race, working his way up front moments before a multi-car wreck caused a caution flag.
Moments later, a downpour forced the cars down pit road. Mother Nature took care of the rest.
“He made some big changes from Daytona 1 and Talladega 1 to Daytona 2,” co-owner Hamlin said of Wallace’s race strategy. “I mentioned to him this week, I was like, ‘That’s the right way to do it. That’s how you maintain your track position up front. That’s how you work the lanes.'”
Hamlin also had a front row seat on track to this one in a unique position, both as a driver and an owner. The maturation of Wallace seems clear, developing from an inconsistent threat to someone capable of winning at Daytona or Talladega.
You also look at the overall body of work elsewhere, and it’s clear 23XI focused on this track type as their best opportunity in year one. Wallace, still developing himself, used these places to maximize his talent and get in position up front, knowing he wouldn’t have the speed to at, say, intermediate tracks. It’s the same philosophy other drivers running with teams a step behind (see: Michael McDowell, Daytona 500) have utilized to great success.
Now, for the race to have been fixed, NASCAR would have also had to predict the rain before it actually happened. That’s difficult considering the forecast changed dramatically over the course of less than 24 hours.
Here’s a look at what Monday’s forecast appeared as when the race had been called.
Now, let’s take a look at that same forecast the morning of Monday’s rain-delayed event.
There was a less than 20% chance of rain until 5 p.m. CT, leaving the racetrack in position to finish the full 500 miles without a problem (a race typically runs about three hours at ‘Dega). You could have said it was a mistake to run the race Monday as it was being called on Sunday; you could have applauded them for it at 10 a.m. Monday morning. The lesson here is it’s simply impossible to control Mother Nature.
NASCAR also can’t control other drivers randomly hitting each other inside a 40-car draft, causing the Big Ones pack racing is known for. Rain moves a couple of miles in any direction, and the race could have been called following an earlier wreck on lap 99 involving Alex Bowman, Tyler Reddick and many others (that Wallace narrowly missed). Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was in front at the time.
Still, for those on the conspiracy train, these words will go in one ear and out the other. It’s disappointing a huge segment of the fan base will look to this result as illegitimate, no matter what you say or do. But the NASCAR record book has the final word on this one, and Wallace’s name will be inscribed there in perpetuity.
“Everybody knew it was going to rain,” Wallace said. “We knew we had to make a move to get out [front] and the caution came at the right time.”
Did You Notice? … NASCAR fans at Talladega showcased a double standard? As Brandon Brown was interviewed on the frontstretch, celebrating his first ever NASCAR Xfinity Series victory, fans broke out in a “Fuck Joe Biden” chant about a minute in. It caused NBC reporter Kelli Stavast to stop in the middle of their interview, acknowledging a chant so loud it was impossible not to hear it. What was weirder was Brown wasn’t even expressing a political opinion or talking politics at all; he was just ecstatic over winning the race.
Stavast then turned around and tried to patch up the situation by saying the fans were chanting, “Let’s go Brandon.” It’s a spur-of-the-moment decision I don’t think she should be criticized for. Yes, it was an obvious lie to the viewing audience, but the story wasn’t the chant: It was an underdog first-time winner who had spent years of blood, sweat and tears to get to this point. A full acknowledgment of what was happening would only have amplified the distraction, giving it attention it didn’t deserve.
Others, like Donald Trump Jr., were keenly aware and have egged on this political movement. What’s unfortunate is this interjection is coming from some of the same people who were angry over politics and sports intersecting, decrying everything from national anthem protests to social justice support. Findings over summer 2020 seemed to support fans of all political persuasions wanting sports and politics to stay separate; a Yahoo/YouGov poll found only 11% watched more because of intertwining the two, while 35% said they watched less.
To complain about such messaging, then interject your own, speaks of hypocrisy. It’s disheartening for Brown, someone who’s toiled in the trenches for years to build up his family-owned team and get that first NASCAR victory.
In response to such a Cinderella story, that’s what the fan base had to say during the most important moment of his life? For years, that winner’s interview can’t be watched without those chants in the background. What a shame.
Where are we heading as a country that this behavior had to be acknowledged and addressed? Fans should be ashamed of what transpired and how it makes the entire racing community look. There’s a time and a place to express those opinions. Right after a driver wins his first career race, getting interviewed on national television, isn’t one of them.
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