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Cain: Bubba Wallace earns his spotlight and will keep dazzling us

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Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. has been considered one of NASCAR’s top young talents for years now — well before the sport’s biggest icon, Richard Petty, signed the 24-year-old driver to a contract this week for the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.

Long before he was showing off his goods in a Monster Energy Series car as a substitute driver for Aric Almirola, he was stunning fans and dropping the jaws of his competitors, moving up the stock-car ranks from the K&N Series to the Camping World Truck Series to the XFINITY Series.

I remember interviewing him four years ago at Dover International Speedway. He was racing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series and its garage was a good walk away from the Cup stars, the television cameras and media stomping grounds that dominate the weekend.

Standing just outside his truck was a smiling Wallace, excited about some opportunities he had just earned. It seemed at the time his rise would be swift.

He won the pole and finished runner-up in the K&N race that day. Then getting a huge opportunity in one of Joe Gibbs Racing’s XFINITY cars, Wallace won the pole as a rookie at Dover, too.

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Like nearly anybody at all who has had a conversation with Wallace, watched his interviews and appreciated his talent, I always knew it would simply be a matter of “when” he got his big break.

But he’s earned his big chance, and it will be good for him and good for NASCAR — not just because he provides diversity as an African-American young man, but because he is talented and can win.

Blessed with great potential and a big personality, Wallace has never seemed to be wrapped up in social condition. He has always just wanted to race, content to earn his way into stock-car racing’s big time, never “expecting” anything based on anything other than what he did with a stock car or — given the right situation — what he could do with a stock car.

He’s candid, emotional and honest after a race — win or lose. And his ability to drive a race car has absolutely nothing to do with the color of his skin.

RELATED: Wallace opens up about 2017 season

If his presence in NASCAR inspires others, then that is truly the cherry on top.

Wallace is a sponsor’s dream — extremely competitive and also young, hip, fun and eloquent. And especially this year, he will likely garner attention because of the historic nature of his presence.

The good news for him and for the Petty team is he will earn that attention because he is first and foremost, a talented race car driver with plenty of good things ahead.

He has earned this opportunity. It’s going to be fun watching him make the most out of it.