To win in Nascar, it takes the right mix of skill and luck. At Talladega, it helps to have more of the latter.
Like Daytona, Talladega is what’s known as a superspeedway – the sport’s biggest oval circuit, a banked, 2.66-mile strip in east-central Alabama that was once home to Air Force twin-engine fighters. For the better part of 500 miles Nascar’s pilots wrestle to keep all four wheels planted while racing in giant packs that sometimes run four and five abreast. In these turbulent formations, emotions and tire temperatures run high. It doesn’t take much – a momentary lapse in concentration, a betrayed alliance between pusher and pushee, a hot dog wrapper wafting in from the grandstand – to set off The Big One, the dreaded, accordion-style crash that shoots cars into the air, taking out the grid in chunks.
And then on top of all that there’s the weather. Persistent rain showers deferred the start of last week’s Talladega Cup feature, the YellaWood 500, from Sunday and interrupted the race again after the green flag dropped on Monday. Add to that downpour the thundering stakes for the 12 pilots in Nascar’s Cup ”Chase” – a 10-week, race-within-the-race to determine the drivers’ championship – and what you have are powder-keg perfect conditions for not one but three Big Ones. The last came on lap 117 when the Chevrolet machine of Ryan Preece was shoved a bit too hard and turned into the outside backstretch barrier, triggering a four-car pileup just before the skies opened yet again.
As the yellow flag flew Bubba Wallace, who survived the initial wrecks and was just a few cars up from Preece before he was bumped out of line, led the field around in his No 23 Toyota machine and into the pits to duck the rain. But this time it didn’t let up. And so Wallace was awarded his first Cup race from his pit box. He called it “a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.” But, likely, posterity will remember it by a different name: the perfect storm.
After all, Wallace isn’t just any driver. He is Nascar’s Black driver, the third ever to land a fulltime drive in its top three series, its unofficial ambassador for diversity and inclusion – the guy who dared his sport to stop tolerating fans’ confederate flag displays and got his wish. It was at this very track that Wallace reckoned with the full spectrum of consequences of that brave stand – from an FBI investigation into a noose-like garage door handle to what looked like the whole sport rallying around him in the wake of that hate-crime investigation to Donald Trump’s White House essentially branding him a liar. That race was weather-delayed, too.
Now here Wallace was, 15 months later – not just the first Black Nascar driver to claim a checkered flag since Wendell Scott’s 1963 triumph in Jacksonville, but a Cup race winner for the first time in a car part-owned by Nascar rookie Michael Jordan. “Some sleepless nights,” Wallace said afterward, ticking off his mechanisms for dealing with the singular pressure of being Nascar’s Charlie Pride and for pushing through his perfectionist streak. “Talking to professionals to help me stay focused on the task at hand. But it’s my family [and girlfriend Amanda] pushing me and knowing that as I’m being the realistic, sometimes pessimistic person, they hold the optimism for me and help me show back up at the racetrack with a good mindset.”
Of course there are some who are crying foul on Wallace’s diversity breakthrough, who see echoes of Danica Patrick’s rain-delayed 2008 IndyCar victory at Motegi and Aric Almirola’s rain-shortened 2014 Cup win at Daytona, who flock to social media to complain that the fix is in. But Wallace – who, it’s worth reminding, was a multi-race winner in the truck series and an Xfinity series title fighter – isn’t paying his detractors much mind this time. “I’ve been off the main pages for a handful of months now,” he said. “It’s helped out a ton. I would go and read the comments. After a bad race I would become one of those haters that doesn’t know anything. Just start telling myself a bunch of dark thoughts. It never helped anything.”
If ever there was a time to doubt himself it was this season, which began with him joining 23XI’s single-car team after four years racing for Richard Petty – Nascar’s other Michael Jordan. And Jordan –the other one, the one without a track record in the sport until this season – made no secret of his desire to succeed straight out of the box. And while 23XI has had no problem bringing Columbia Sportswear, DoorDash and other non-traditional sponsors into the sport, they’ve mostly struggled to find consistency despite technical alliances with Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing (a perennial frontrunner) and the technical leadership of 23XI co-owner and Joe Gibbs driver Denny Hamlin. Their maiden race at February’s Daytona 500 – a frustrating, crash-marred affair that nearly saw Wallace miss the race entirely with car trouble – harkened memories of Dr J’s doomed Nascar adventure. Excepting Monday’s result and a redemptive second-place effort at Daytona in August, Wallace’s average finishing position was 20th. That, he took personally.
Now after all those hurdles, after years of mounting expectations, Wallace finally gets a moment to savor. He gets to revel in the fact that his maiden victory came on a track that was the pet project of former Alabama governor George Wallace, a noted racist. He gets to bask in an accomplishment that came two months after Scott’s family finally got a trophy and victory lane celebration to show for Wendell’s landmark win. He gets to tell his 23XI bosses that, indeed, the arrow is pointed up and that the Jordan and Hamlin-led franchise—which will add a second car piloted by the former Cup champion Kurt Busch—could very well have two cars in the title chase next season. And Wallace was already collaborating with Busch while running up front on Monday.
But most of all, he gets to stick it to his haters – the “keyboard warriors” with their thumbs ever poised to rain on his parade. “I [decided] for good to get off the main pages there, go out and enjoy life, don’t let people like that [in],” he continued. “In high school I was always worried about what other people thought of me. I finally let that go once I graduated, matured a bit. I’m not going to be able to please everybody. Doesn’t matter if I won by a thousand laps or won a rain-shortened race. Not everybody is gonna be happy with it. That’s OK because I know the one person that is happy, and that’s because I’m a winner and they’re not.”
Had another driver won this week’s Cup feature, it’s a story but not a controversy. But because it’s Wallace who came out on top, well, surely there must be some invisible hand in all this. That’s the thing about Talladega. Sometimes it’s a car that takes off at the track. Sometimes, it’s a career. The difference comes down to making your own luck. For Wallace, that difference was historic.