'Some sleepless nights:' How Bubba Wallace persevered through the last 18 months to become a Cup winner

·7-min read

No NASCAR driver’s professional life has changed more than Bubba Wallace’s over the past 18 months.

Last spring, Wallace was a relative unknown outside of NASCAR. While he was the driver of Richard Petty’s iconic No. 43 car, he wasn’t a star. He wasn’t in any commercials. He was a driver with a contract up at the end of the season just trying to finish better than the caliber of his mid-pack equipment every week to get a better ride.

Little did Wallace know how speaking up for what’s right would change his career and help lead him to victory lane at Talladega. Wallace won Monday’s rain-delayed race after 104 of a scheduled 188 laps and became the first Black driver to win a race at NASCAR’s top level since Wendell Scott in 1963.

“When you want to stand up for what's right and be yourself, encourage others to do the same,” Wallace said Monday. “So just be ready for that. Don't let anybody else tell you you can't do something that you're so passionate about. Just always stay true to your craft.”

As the only Black driver racing full-time in NASCAR, Wallace started reaching out to his fellow drivers in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. He wanted his friends and fellow competitors to use their platforms to speak out against racial injustice.

“I wouldn’t want to be the guy who went out and won a championship in a horrible year but never made a comment on the issues that we are dealing with in our society,” Wallace told Dale Earnhardt Jr. on a podcast in June of 2020.

TALLADEGA, ALABAMA - OCTOBER 04: Bubba Wallace, driver of the #23 McDonald's Toyota, celebrates in the Ruoff Mortgage victory lane after winning the rain-shortened NASCAR Cup Series YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 04, 2021 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Bubba Wallace celebrates after winning at Talladega on Monday. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Wallace spoke out against Confederate flag

Days after Wallace spoke to Earnhardt Jr. he wore a shirt honoring Floyd before a race as NASCAR admitted its social justice shortcomings. That moment and Wallace’s willingness to use his platform sparked a conversation about NASCAR’s allowance of the Confederate flag at its racetracks. Days after Wallace said in a CNN interview that he didn’t think fans should fly the flag at tracks, NASCAR moved to ban the flag from all of its properties.

Wallace’s public comments and NASCAR’s ban immediately made him the mainstream face of a sports series’ long-overdue attempt to eradicate the flag’s presence at its races. And those who didn’t understand how the flag could have such negative connotations to so many found an immediate foil.

Wallace became an even bigger target for social media abuse and media misrepresentation just three weeks after his podcast appearance. NASCAR announced on June 21 that the garage door rope on Wallace's car's garage stall had been tied into a noose. The sanctioning body called the noose a "heinous act" and vowed to find the perpetrator. 

As NASCAR drivers and crew members rallied around Wallace, federal investigators were in the NASCAR garage to investigate a possible hate crime. But there was no hate crime. Or even a crime at all. A thorough investigation found that the noose knot had been tied since the previous race at Talladega in the fall of 2019 when Wallace's team didn't occupy the garage stall. The rope's presence in the garage stall assigned to Wallace's car via its points position had been hanging there apparently unnoticed for months. 

That revelation wrongly put Wallace in the crosshairs of a hysterical right-wing mob irrationally convinced that he had helped concoct a fake story to gain sympathy and fame. Never mind that Wallace was never in the garage at Talladega because of NASCAR's COVID protocols or that NASCAR, not Wallace, revealed the noose knot's existence.

"Some sleepless nights," Wallace said about the things he heard or read people say about himself. "Talking to professionals to help me stay focused on the task at hand. Really listening to my family. [Fiancee] Amanda being there pushing me. I go into some of these races and I just have a negative attitude. She rips me in the ass to get in shape and to show up with some positivity."

Wallace now drives for Michael Jordan

While Wallace was wrongfully targeted by some, he was rightfully noticed by others. Sponsors who hadn't shown a previous interest in NASCAR were suddenly willing to align themselves with him. His actions caught the eye of fellow competitor Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan. As Hamlin and Jordan made plans to form a race team, they targeted Wallace to be their driver. 

The new team was a coup for NASCAR. Its newfound star was joining a new team helmed by one of the most famous athletes ever. That only ratcheted up the pressure on Wallace. Though he has seven wins in the third-tier Truck Series, he was still looking for his first career Cup win in over 100 starts. And Jordan said he had entered NASCAR to win. 

A win looked unlikely for much of 2021. After finishing 22nd in the points standings in 2020, Wallace found himself in 23rd after 14 races this season despite being with a team that had far more resources. And Wallace admitted that he'd find himself letting the negativity from others on the outside affect him.

"I've been off my main [social media] pages for a handful of months now," he said. "It's helped out a ton. For me, I would go and read the comments. After a bad race, I would become one of those haters that doesn't know anything. I would become one of them. Just start telling myself a bunch of dark thoughts. It never helped anything.

"I said for good to get off the main pages there, go out and enjoy life, don't let people like that — In high school I was always worried about what other people thought of me. I finally let that go once I kind of graduated, matured a little bit."

Wallace and the team’s performance started to slowly turn around in June. Wallace scored his first top-five finish of the season at Pocono and then finished second at Daytona in August. That second-place finish at Daytona marked the first season of his Cup career with multiple top fives. 

That Daytona finish is also why Wallace's win on Monday isn't unexpected. Three of Wallace's 10 career top-10 finishes entering the race came at Daytona, a track much like Talladega. And Wallace expertly navigated the draft at the front of the field as rain approached the track Monday afternoon, holding off multiple passing attempts by other drivers. 

Those moves ultimately made him a Cup winner after Ryan Preece hit the wall and collected other cars minutes before the rain hit. Another shower arrived approximately an hour later and NASCAR was forced to call the race because there wasn't enough daylight. 

Rain-shortened wins count the same as a win in a race that goes the full distance. And it's not like Wallace and his team used pit strategy in an attempt to game a win. He beat everyone straight up. While he may have been an unexpected winner Monday, he was the legitimate race leader at the time of the final caution.

"I'm not going to be able to please everybody," Wallace said. "Doesn't matter if I won by a thousand laps or won a rain-shortened race, not everybody is going to be happy with it. That's OK because I know one person that is happy and that's me because I'm a winner and they're not."

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