Bubba Wallace wasn’t going to let anyone, not even Mother Nature, keep him from victory lane.
The driver, who last year pushed NASCAR to take the long-overdue step of banning the Confederate flag from its events, won a rain-shortened race at Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Ala., on Monday afternoon. It was the first time the driver took the checkered flag at the NASCAR Cup Series, and it’s the first victory by a Black driver in the sport’s top division since Wendell Scott won at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1963.
The YellaWood 500 was originally supposed to be held on Sunday but was postponed due to inclement weather. Things had cleared up enough for the race to start on Monday, but shortly after the halfway mark the weather took a turn for the worse. It was around this time that Wallace, in the no. 23 car, made his way to the front of the field. He had been in the lead for five laps when an accident and heavy rain forced the race to be called with 117 of 188 laps completed.
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Wallace’s win comes a year after he was catapulted into the national spotlight for choosing to speak out in support of the protests for racial justice and equality that rose up in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Wallace, who is the only Black driver in the Cup Series, spoke openly about the racism he experienced in an overwhelmingly white sport and displayed the words “Black Lives Matter” on his car. After a noose was found in Wallace’s garage stall at Talladega last year—it was later found to be left over from the previous season and not directed at him, according to an FBI investigation—his fellow drivers rallied around him, symbolically pushing his car to the front of pit row before the start of the Geico 500. Wallace’s activism convinced NASCAR to ban the display of the Confederate flag at its races and implement unconscious bias training for its employees.
“You always got to stick true to your path and not let the nonsense get to you and stay strong, stay humble, stay hungry,” Wallace said after the race, according to The New York Times. “There’s been plenty of times when I wanted to give up. But you surround yourself with the right people, and it’s moments like this you appreciate.”
The victory wasn’t just a first for Wallace; it was also a first for the 23XI Racing team, which is co-owned by current NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin and NBA great Michael Jordan. Wallace signed on to be the team’s first driver last September after leaving Richard Petty Motorsports. Although he currently sits in 21st place in the Cup Series standings, Wallace has had three top 5 finishes this season, including fifth at the Explore the Pocono Mountains 350 and second at Coke Zero Sugar 400 in August, making his debut season with the team a clear success.