Bubba Wallace sends a message as horrible day in NASCAR leads to unity and hope

Bubba Wallace didn’t want to wear a mask for a postrace interview Monday.

It was a message to everyone watching, a little more than 24 hours after one of his crew members saw a noose hanging in Wallace’s garage stall at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

“I’m not wearing my mask, but I wanted to show whoever it was that you’re not going to take away my smile, and I’m going to keep on going,” Wallace said. “I’ve been a part of this sport for a really long time.”

The entire day was a message – a message that started with sorrow, anger, disbelief and turned into a little bit of unity and pride in what could have been termed one of the worst days of NASCAR history that ended at least with images of hope.

Wallace, the only Black driver in the NASCAR Cup Series, successfully advocated for NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag two weeks ago and drove a Black Lives Matter paint scheme in a race June 10.

Many of the drivers did not know about the noose until the morning, as NASCAR had released the news late Sunday night.

But Ryan Blaney, Wallace’s best friend, knew and didn’t sleep much. He had talked with Wallace in his motorhome after NASCAR had told Wallace what had happened.

“He was obviously really emotional and really hurt by it,” Blaney said. “I just didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t find the words to describe how I felt.

“I felt a mixture of anger and sadness for him, confused how anybody could do something like this. … Last night, I was really angry.”

Early in the morning, Jimmie Johnson saw the news. He told the other drivers he wanted to stand with Wallace during the national anthem. Kevin Harvick wanted to go a step further. He wanted the drivers to push the car to the front of the grid. Other team members wanted to join.

The visuals from the race track were stunning. It was the ultimate we-have-your-back moment.

“You can’t let some idiots try to threaten somebody – you can’t let that affect you,” Blaney said. “It shows how strong Bubba is. You’re hurting, really saddened by it and I’m sure he’s still hurting by it.

“But to come together, all of us, be strong. That is how you’ve got to deal with that stuff. If you let it eat away at you, that person wins, those people win.”

The drivers seemed to feel power in their unity, a feeling they didn’t have in the morning.

“Anger, pissed off, my blood was boiling,” said the seven-time Cup champion Johnson. “I could not believe that that had happened.

“As momentum built and the awareness of the statement the garage was going to make and how many people reached out, how many people wanted to be involved, it shifted to great pride for our sport.”

Still, as the drivers and crew members stood there, they still don’t know if it was one of their own who was guilty – only essential personnel are allowed in the infield under NASCAR’s COVID-19 protocols. NASCAR says a lifetime ban will be the punishment if any NASCAR member was involved. The Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted interviews Monday at the track although it couldn’t say if any crime had been committed.

Wallace didn’t win the race. He ran well but had to pit late in the race for gas and settled for 14th.

But Blaney did, giving Wallace reason to smile in addition to his own solid performance.

“It’s been tough,” Wallace said. “It’s been hell. Well, I wouldn’t say hell — it’s just been hectic you know, carrying this weight, this burden.

“I wouldn’t really say burden, either. I’m proud to stand where I’m at and carry a new face.”

Blaney and Wallace shared a moment of celebration after Blaney won. The day certainly ended better than it started.

“I don’t want it to be remembered as a terrible day or a bad day in NASCAR,” Blaney said. “I want it to be remembered as there was an incident and we all overcame it together and showed we’re not going to take it any more.

“I’m getting sick of this s—. It’s not something he should deal with.”

For more on NASCAR’s show of support for Wallace on Monday, click here.

For more on NASCAR’s investigation of the incident and the timeline of events leading up to Sunday, click here.