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Inspired drive, momentous night for Bubba Wallace at Martinsville

Bubba Wallace said he hadn’t gotten much sleep in recent days, an understandable deficit for the sport’s lone African-American driver who’s had plenty on his mind as the country experiences a movement to right racial injustice and NASCAR makes steps to evolve alongside it.

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Wallace drove with purpose Wednesday night, carrying more than mere on-track hopes with a #BlackLivesMatter paint scheme on his Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 at Martinsville Speedway. It netted him an 11th-place finish, falling just shy of a top-10 result after a late-race mixing of fenders with seven-time champ and Martinsville master Jimmie Johnson.

“Man, our car was so good,” Wallace told FOX Sports after the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500. “Our Black Lives Matter Chevrolet — that’s good to say right there — was so good on the long run. … But all in all, great job to come here and execute, no practice. My favorite place, and it just continues to show. I’ll tell you what was badass, racing with seven-time there at the end, Jimmie Johnson. You think, Jimmie Johnson wins so many times here and we’re running him down. That’s hat’s off to my guys, so good job, fellas.”

Wallace finished among the top 10 at each stage break, his team battling through a mechanical issue that required extra pumps of the jack during pit stops. His affinity for the .526-mile track helped to offset that, aiding his cause at the site of two wins for him in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series.

Though he slipped toward the end of the lead-lap cars during the final stage, he rallied down the stretch to vie for his third top 10 of the season.

But Wednesday’s result carried much more meaning than his outcome on the scoring sheet. For the second straight race, he wore a T-shirt with messages of “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter” in the wake of protests surrounding the death of George Floyd on May 25 in Minnesota. His statement, lifted by support from his fellow drivers and the sanctioning body, helped Wallace lead the call for the confederate flag to be banned from NASCAR tracks and grounds in a Monday night interview with CNN.

RELATED: NASCAR Statement on confederate flag

Less than 48 hours later and just hours before Wednesday’s start at Martinsville, NASCAR issued a condemnation of the flag and its prohibition from those settings. Wallace drove home what the event meant to him in a pre-race message to his crew.

“Like that message I sent you guys, biggest night of my life right here,” Wallace said over the No. 43 radio. “I’ll give it my all. … Everybody watching, new faces watching. Appreciate y’all’s support. Support this week’s been pretty unreal, so definitely didn’t go unnoticed.”

New faces seemed to take notice, too. NASCAR’s decision, Wallace’s paint scheme and the sport’s substantial steps toward real change drew new fans to social media and garnered support from famous names in other walks of life — notably NBA star LeBron James, soccer pro Jozy Altidore, actress Reese Witherspoon and Bernice King, Martin Luther King’s youngest child.

“I think it’s great, the initiative he’s showing and wanting to be a part of change, the right change,” said Ryan Blaney, a close friend to Wallace and Wednesday’s runner-up. “I feel like he’s on his way, man. He’s doing a really good job. I think he was on CNN the other night, he did a great job on that. Like I said, I’ve just known him a long time and he’s just Bubba to me. I think of him as a brother. It’s good to talk to him, but I think he’s definitely not getting sleep because he’s so busy. It’s good things, a good cause that he’s striving toward.”