Something the camera didn’t catch during Bubba Wallace’s emotional moment on the pre-race grid this week at Talladega Superspeedway was a light-hearted crack he made to the rest of the NASCAR Cup Series roster. The other 39 drivers had come together and pushed his No. 43 entry to the front of the field as a show of unity, but Wallace found a way to break some of the tension and gravity of a heavy weekend of swirling story lines.
“That’s just my sarcastic side coming out,” Wallace said in a Friday teleconference. “I was like, ‘I don’t like half you guys, but I appreciate all you guys,’ as a joking way.”
While there may be a kernel of truth to every joke, what’s telling is the support came from many corners of the NASCAR garage, from close friends to others who aren’t especially close to the Richard Petty Motorsports driver and to those who had previously crossed swords with Wallace on the track.
Among those in the latter category was Alex Bowman, the recipient of a post-race water-bottle splash after his on-track clash with Wallace last season at the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course. In social media and again Friday, Bowman said his competitive differences and past grievances with Wallace were worth setting aside for the greater good.
“Yeah, I think there’s no secret, we’re not best friends, right?” Bowman said. “We’ve had our fair share of run-ins and the on-track stuff is just going to happen — tempers are going to flare, and if you run into the same guy a couple of weeks in a row here and there, it’s not going to go great for your relationship. But that’s as a race car driver and that’s on the race track. As a human being, I have a big appreciation for him pushing us all to be better, speaking up and us do the same.
“It really comes down to, on the race track, we’re probably not going to be friends. But as a person, I appreciate what he’s doing and just wanted to show my support for him.”
The focus on Wallace has sharpened in recent weeks as he has provided his voice for change, both in society at large and within the NASCAR community, including his call for a ban on the confederate flag. Through it, he has had positive encouragement from his peers — on social media, in a video message organized by Jimmie Johnson and in Monday’s rally around him and his No. 43.
“It was good to see everybody out there and I appreciate their support,” Wallace said. “I guess two people that stuck out was Aric Almirola sent a nice text on Monday right before all that on Monday, saying how we’re not friends and we don’t act like we are, but we’re going to stand next to each other and he’ll be proud to stand next to me as a brother and being human beings. I thought that was pretty special because him and I, we don’t click at all very well and will both tell you that.
“Alex Bowman coming up, he said we don’t see eye to eye on everything, but he stands behind me 100 percent, something along those lines. I thought that was pretty cool. I’ve always had respect for Alex, but we’ve definitely butted heads and we’ve lost respect at times for each other, but it shows that we can all come together.”
Denny Hamlin was among those showing support for Wallace’s cause last weekend at Talladega, both in his pre-race presence and with his No. 11 Toyota stripped of its usual FedEx logos and orange-white-purple look for a striking black car that showed its backing of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. He said Monday’s demonstration illustrated on-track rivalries are a lesser priority than the sense of camaraderie within the community of drivers.
“I don’t think it matters really who it is. You show solidarity and I think as drivers, even if you have differences with someone, you show that solidarity to show the family that we are,” Hamlin said. “Driving for change or wanting change in our culture is something that we are all unified on. I don’t think it matters what our differences or friendships are with a certain driver. That is something that we are all going to get behind.”
While Wallace aims to continue making an impact in the larger community, he’s ready this weekend for a pair of Cup Series events at Pocono Raceway with his fellow drivers — rivals or not.
“Just focus on racing. Let’s focus on how we can continue to push the message of love, compassion, understanding,” Wallace said. “Let’s help fight the good fight in what’s going on in the world today. Let’s get new fans out to the race track and encourage our fan base now to welcome them with open arms and show them a good time. I think that’s one important piece that we can focus on right now. Let’s get away from what happened at Talladega. Let’s move on from that. Let’s put it to bed.”