Bubba Wallace ready for spotlight

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There are no places to hide in the spotlight. In moments of glory, few places are as exhilarating. In other times, the spotlight is exhausting.

The key is to be comfortable under the glare.

It is a lesson Bubba Wallace has learned in and out of the car. A year after NASCAR’s only Black Cup driver spoke up about social issues — and became the object of a contemptuous tweet from the President at the time — Wallace begins a new era on the track. Now one of the sport’s highest profile drivers, he joins new team owners Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin at 23XI Racing, making his debut with the team in Sunday’s Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on Fox).

“I think we’re all anticipating what is 23XI going to do,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “What is the 23 car going to do? What is Bubba going to do?”

He was quick Wednesday at Daytona International Speedway. Wallace posted the fastest lap in practice. He was fourth in qualifying, putting him on the front row for Thursday night’s second Duel. He’ll start sixth in the Daytona 500.

“Everything is shaping up to be a great ending for us,” Wallace told reporters after qualifying.

Until last February, his focus solely was racing. Then he saw the video of Ahmaud Arbery shot to death in Brunswick, Georgia after being followed by two white men. The images horrified Wallace.

Then Breonna Taylor was killed March 13 in a police shooting in Louisville. George Floyd died May 25 while being pinned to the ground under a white police officer’s knee in Minneapolis.

Wallace responded by wearing a T-shirt with “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter” on it over his racing uniform June 7 at Atlanta. He called for NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag — a move officials made a few days later. He drove a Black Lives Matter car at Martinsville that featured “Compassion, Love, Understanding” on the hood.

NMPA Pocono Spirit Award
Bubba Wallace wears a “I Can’t Breath – Black Lives Matter” T-shirt after the death of George Floyd on May 25 while in police custody. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Until those events, Wallace had not been outspoken about racial issues.

“It takes time for you to mature,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “I wasn’t this vocal in the previous 26 years of my life, 27 years, whatever it is. It just took time. You kind of know your place in society. I know my place in this sport and how much weight my voice has.

“It’s grown substantially over the last six months. It takes time to kind of hone in your messaging and what you want to be known as or represent yourself away from the racetrack, away from your craft.

“So, there’s no rhyme or reason to when to do it, how to do it. It’s just feeling comfortable with what you’re doing.”

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As Inauguration Day approached last month, Wallace wanted to send a message on a day of significant change with a new President and the nation’s first female vice president, as well as the first Black American and first person of South Asian descent to hold that office.

“I was thinking I want to say something here because it was a change for everybody in the nation,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “So, I was just trying to encourage people who know what the outcome is going to be. We have to embrace it and somewhat try to enjoy the journey no matter what side you’re on, what you look like, who you are.”

He tweeted:

He has sought to be positive with his message, mirroring the notion of “Compassion, Love, Understanding.”

It’s what he leaned on in calling for the banning of the Confederate flag last year.

“What I want is just for people to not feel uncomfortable,” Wallace said last June. “The first thing they talk about is feeling uncomfortable because of something that reminds them of a negative past and that has so much negative history behind it.”

It’s an issue the sport has faced throughout its existence. In 1999, as Chris Bristol — a 23-year-old Black racer seeking to work his way up NASCAR’s ranks — cited the Confederate flag as something difficult to ignore.

“You see 500 rebel flags flying in the air,” he told the News & Record of Greensboro, N.C., then, “it’s like, ‘Whoa, am I really wanted here?’”

NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate flag last year at its events came a few days after the sport stopped the cars on the track before the Atlanta race and NASCAR President Steve Phelps addressed competitors and fans, saying:

“Our country is in pain and people are justifiably angry, demanding to be heard. The Black community and all people of color have suffered in our country and it has taken far too long for us to hear their demands for change. Our sport must do better. Our country must do better.”

Drivers and team members stand with Bubba Wallace at Talladega. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Later that month, a garage rope was found tied into a noose in the stall for Wallace’s team at Talladega. Drivers and team members stood in solidarity with Wallace before the race. The FBI ruled there was no hate crime because the garage rope had been like that since October and there was no way to know Wallace’s team would have that garage several months later. Even so, some on social media accused Wallace of masterminding the event to gain attention although he did not discover the noose.

Former President Donald Trump tweeted a couple of weeks later if Wallace had apologized for what he said was “another HOAX.”

Wallace responded by telling people to “keep your head held high and walk proudly on the path you have chosen. … All the haters are doing is elevating your voice and platform to much greater heights.”

Indeed, Wallace appeared on the “Today Show” and CNN to discuss social issues.

The ridicule on social media continued.

“Just so many ignorant people hating on him for no reason,” Ryan Blaney told NBC Sports. “I will never understand why you can dislike somebody because they are a different color than you. That’s just ridiculous to me, but some people are that way.

“I thought he did a really good job of really showing no weakness to those people. He stood up to them and stood his ground.”

Wallace’s strength was no surprise to those who had been around him in racing for years.

“We knew he was a strong individual, and we knew he could step up and show everybody else who he is and that this sport can be better than that,” Tyler Reddick told NBC Sports. “We knew that, but he had to show the world that. He did a great job of it, and he is still doing a great job of it.”

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Michael Jordan has been a fan of NASCAR since he was a child and his father took him and his family to races at Darlington, Rockingham, Charlotte and Talladega.

He admits that NASCAR’s push last year to be more inclusive was among the reasons he became interested in co-owning a team with Hamlin and hiring Wallace as the driver.

Wallace has had an up-and-down NASCAR career, often held back by limited sponsorship his team had in Trucks, Xfinity and Cup. He won six Truck races, none in Xfinity and is winless in Cup.

He’s had few opportunities to win in Cup but nearly pulled off an upset, finishing second to Austin Dillon in the 2018 Daytona 500.

Wallace wept after embracing family members in a poignant news conference after the race.

“I’m so proud of you,” Wallace’s mother, Desiree, said. “We’ve waited so long. So long.”

“You’re acting like we just won the race!” Wallace said after becoming the highest-finishing Black driver in the history of the Daytona 500.

“We did,” Desiree said. “We did. We did win that race.”

Jordan, who will attend the Daytona 500, made it clear that he expects to celebrate victories with Wallace.

“My biggest conversation to Denny was, ‘Look, I don’t want to get in there just to go around the races and just go around and around and around and finish up 18th, 19th, 20th, 30th,’ “ Jordan said in an interview with NBC Sports and Fox in September. “ ‘I want to win. I want to be put in a position for the best chance for us to win.’ That’s my competitive nature. That’s always been who I am.”

Wallace shares that attitude. While many drivers often shy from revealing preseason goals, Wallace made it known what he is aiming for this season

“I know that I need to go out and perform and win races to become a household name on the racetrack,” he told NBC Sports. “I’m a household name off the racetrack because of everything that happened last year. As good and as great as that is, I need to balance that out with on-track performance and the results haven’t been there. Obviously, circumstances and everything.

“Looking at this year and moving forward with what we have, with Toyota, with the partnership with (Joe Gibbs Racing) and with everything going on at 23XI Racing, there’s no reason why we can’t go out and be good and compete for wins and put ourselves in the playoffs this year. I have written down in a text message two wins this year. That’s solid. That’s doable.”

Wallace’s ability to go fast could help him reach that goal. Reddick said when they raced in what is now the ARCA Menards Series East race at Rockingham in 2012, he recalled how fast Wallace was. But it was Reddick who won that race. Reddick saw that same speed from Wallace when they ran in the Truck Series.

“He has the ability to go to that level and put it together on the racetrack,” Reddick said. “He’s put together some good runs. When he gets into that 23 car this coming year, (it’s) obviously going to be fast. When he puts those races together, he’s going to have an extremely good chance of winning races. That’s exciting for our entire sport and exciting for him to have that opportunity.”

NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500 Qualifying
Bubba Wallace before qualifying Wednesday at Daytona. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

To be in position to win races, there are still things Wallace will need to refine. That’s where Hamlin, who has 44 Cup wins and three Daytona 500 victories, can help.

“I think that he’s got raw talent and speed,” Hamlin told NBC Sports. “I think that’s a given. That’s what makes you go fast is speed. But how do you get the best result? That’s the challenge. There’s no secret that for a very long time the young guys have always been fast, but why aren’t they getting the wins that the Harvicks are getting and the seasoned veterans?

“They’re just as fast, but they’re not finding a way to optimize their day. What I’ve learned during the course of my career, hopefully, can curb Bubba’s learning process, giving him something new to experience.”

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Even as Hamlin goes for a record third consecutive Daytona 500 triumph, pole-sitter Alex Bowman becomes the first driver to start on the front row for four consecutive Daytona 500s and Chase Elliott runs his first race as a reigning Cup champion, the focus is on Wallace and his new team.

He embraces it.

“I know that there is a lot on the line and a lot more people watching, just to see what we can do,” he told NBC Sports. “I have to make sure that everything is buttoned up and ready to go.”

So far so good.

“Everything is in place,” he said after qualifying Wednesday. “I keep saying that my motto is, ‘no more excuses,’ and right now I don’t have an excuse, so I’m good.”

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NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

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NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC)

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).