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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