Triumph at Talladega: Reflections on Bubba Wallace’s breakthrough win

There was a feeling that came over Bubba Wallace last October as he prepared to race again in his home state. He’d had that same sensation once before in his racing career several years earlier, but now it was back. He told Amanda Carter, his fiancée, matter-of-factly what it was – a momentous hunch that he relayed during the most mundane of tasks.

“Amanda and I were brushing our teeth to go to bed or something, and it was like, ‘Yep, it’s gonna happen this weekend. We’re gonna win,’ ” Wallace said this week, recalling the events of last fall. “And we kept saying it throughout the weekend.”

That grand premonition had to wait. A washout of Sunday’s scheduled start at Talladega Superspeedway pushed the Yellawood 500 to a Monday show. Work obligations forced Carter to return home, leaving Wallace and their dog, Asher, at the track. “So it was just me and ol’ Asher Dasher the dog, chillin’ Monday morning,” Wallace said, “and I still had that feeling.”

That intuition is now 2-for-2. Last Oct. 4, Wallace put 23XI Racing into Victory Lane for the first time and etched his name into the history books with his first NASCAR Cup Series win.

RELATED: Wallace savors first Cup Series win | Watch: A drive to history

That only other time such a strong expectation washed over Wallace? That occasion marked off another historic first, in another October eight years earlier. At the time, he was a 20-year-old prospect just getting started in the Camping World Truck Series, still going by his given name of Darrell Wallace Jr. instead of his more commonly used nickname. But when he entered Martinsville Speedway on that chilly race weekend, he felt he couldn’t lose.

“We raced on Saturday, so it was probably Friday night, Thursday night,” Wallace says. “And this was when I was still living by myself in my apartment, and it was like, ‘Yep, this is when it happens.’ ”

NASCAR is back this weekend in Talladega, the star-crossed track where some of stock-car racing’s most enduring memories have been created and where Wallace will forever be linked. Wallace, now 28, is a self-proclaimed “live in the moment” type – not prone to the uncertain hysteria of looking too far ahead, yet able to appreciate the past without dwelling in it. But it’s difficult not to reflect when the racing calendar makes a return trip to the site of such emotion, the place where the list of Black winners in the Cup Series – stuck at one for nearly 60 years – grew to two.

What it meant for a trail blazer’s legacy, for an upstart race team, and for Wallace’s triumphant return, some six-plus months later … much like Talladega itself, it’s worth revisiting.

Brian Lawdermilk | Getty Images
Brian Lawdermilk | Getty Images

‘It was his moment’

Wendell Scott’s lasting legacy may be twofold, one a nod to his life spent as a pioneer in the racing community as NASCAR’s first Black winner in its top division but the other as a father with a close-knit sense of family. Those relatives have carried on his memory since his death in 1990, but they have also brought in Wallace as one of their own.

The family’s support has come from all corners, but Wallace may have had his tightest connection with Wendell Scott Jr., who died in February. “My uncle, Wendell Jr., absolutely adored that man,” says Warrick Scott, grandson of the NASCAR Hall of Famer. “I mean, they were the closest of all our family.”

Says Wallace: “He was the one texting me just about after every weekend. We’d go a few weeks without talking, but man, he was always watching. And even if it was a bad race, he was like, ‘Man, I see what you were doing in Turns 3 and 4. That was sexy. That was cool.’ And it was like, I appreciate that, that’ll definitely be missed.”

Robert Laberge
Robert Laberge | Getty Images

The Scott family had been there in force to celebrate Wallace’s repeat Truck Series win at Martinsville in 2014. The group made the short drive west from the family’s hometown in Danville, Virginia, to watch Wallace dominate in a one-race switch to the No. 34 and the powder-blue paint once favored by their patriarch.

Plans had been sketched out for the family to be at Talladega last August, Warrick Scott says, but that so much travel in the weeks and months leading into the race made them press pause. Even watching from home, the Scotts felt no less connected, watching Wallace put his No. 23 Toyota in position to win once the rain – which had already forced a one-day delay – halted the race and made the outcome official.

“I think what gets lost in the moment, is the dynamic drive that he did leading up to that moment,” says Warrick Scott, the Wendell Scott Foundation‘s CEO. “He had to be in first to be declared the winner, and then his dominance or his proficiency at superspeedways. And so to see it all kind of come together at the same time, it just really felt like you know … the Scotts, we’re spiritual people. And we just really believe that my grandfather’s spirit, just in this totality, Darrell had obtained favor from the Lord above. And it was his moment.”

But it was at least a moment that the family shared as well, given the activity spike on Warrick Scott’s phone. Friends, family and well-wishers had come calling, but so did the interview requests into the foundation — local and national outlets, but also several outside the continental U.S. He rattles off the list of international media asks – Germany, Turkey, Sweden among others.

It was a spotlight Wallace was happy to share.

“The Scott family as a whole has been really good to me,” he says. “And it’s been fun, you know, carrying the torch that their father had ignited. So I’m just carrying it further until someone else comes along to carry it even further than that. So it’s just very humbling and special.”

Candidates are already lining up to be that next torch-bearer that Wallace mentions. Rajah Caruth, 19, is in his first ARCA Menards Series season and made his Xfinity Series debut earlier this month at Richmond Raceway. Fellow teenager Lavar Scott has followed the same short-track route, driving a Rev Racing entry with Wendell’s No. 34 with some early success.

Warrick Scott says he wondered what sort of impact Wallace’s win might have on the talent pool of Black drivers rising through the ranks this season. Now he’s watching that influence unfold.

“Now we’re in the following year talking about it, so you’re seeing an uptick in the opportunities that they’re getting,” Scott says. “I’m not saying that Bubba’s victory is solely the reason, but you’ve got to feel like internally, those guys can look at him and see a form of success that they can touch and connect to. They can only read about and watch my grandfather, watch about what my grandfather did and read about them.

“But to be able to get some real tutelage or guidance from that guy, about many things that probably don’t even have to do with the actual action of racing, the stuff leading up to the race — who you have to be socially, who you have to be culturally — to be able to have a tour guide. It just felt like a powerful moment in sports history that I am glad that my grandfather’s legacy wasn’t a footnote. It was, it felt as though he was a part of that moment, even from the grave.”

Upstart to winner

It had been barely more than a year since the launch of 23XI Racing, announced by friends turned business partners Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan, by the time Talladega’s October race arrived.

In some ways, the operation was still a start-up finding its way through its first season together. By Talladega, 23XI was three races into its first major reorganization – crew chief Mike Wheeler in his new role as competition director, and fellow veteran Bootie Barker taking his spot making the race-day calls. They oversaw a still-new group tasked with making the No. 23 go. When Talladega arrived, there was a collective release mixed with fulfillment.

“I think the reality was for us just watching the team come together and actually get rewarded for all of its efforts from scratch,” Wheeler told NASCAR.com. “You know, we were working hard all year to grow from nothing to being relevant and trying to make the playoffs.”

The postseason goal eluded Wallace, who finished second to longtime friend Ryan Blaney in the regular-season finale at Daytona, where a last-minute victory would have propelled him onto the playoff grid. Talladega, though, meant a chance to steal away a win from the championship contenders, and for Wallace to celebrate with the team that helped get him there.

2022 April22 Bubba Wallace 4 Main Image
Alejandro Alvarez | NASCAR Digital Media

“Man, that was really sweet, and made that moment just last even longer and something you could think about and cherish for a really long time,” Wallace says. “So, I’ve got a lot of great people on my team, a lot of hard workers, and you appreciate their attitude and their effort that they bring to the track. We’ve had some people move around a little bit, go from off the road to in the shop, but just the people that we continue to surround ourselves with, and bring on at 23XI, it’s been fun. It’s just been a fun atmosphere, and that’s what I wanted it to be.”

When the race was ruled official, Wallace’s emotion overflowed alongside his team’s.

“So, just that day … it just put everything in perspective about how hard you work and how much you put in to put it together,” Wheeler says. “And a lot of guys in that team, it was their first win. I know it was Bubba’s first win, but it was Bootie’s first win, it was engineers’ first win, it was tire guys’ first win. There’s a lot of people on that team that haven’t ever won a national series race or even a Cup race. For me it was, I had another win under my belt, maybe it was my first win as comp director, but I remember calling Denny up and saying how much it felt differently. As much as we were excited, it was more of a ‘wow’ than happiness.”

The Victory Lane hit differently in many ways, from the alternate indoor location made necessary by lightning in the vicinity of the track to the presence of Asher for the post-race festivities. For Hamlin, it was a rare moment to observe a celebration for a race he didn’t win. Instead, he watched like a proud parent as the team he’d helped assemble soaked in the moment.

Wheeler didn’t want the moment to end, but he also wanted a proper finishing touch. So once the storm had let up, he asked.

“I remember afterward, the Victory Lane stuff going a little bit south because of the lightning delay and all the rain,” Wheeler says. “I remember actually calling up NASCAR and being like, ‘hey, we gotta get these guys Victory Lane pictures. This is the first time ever. We can’t just send them home without a Victory Lane party,’ so I was happy that NASCAR followed through with that and got all these guys a moment in Victory Lane like that.”

The return

Wallace has kept several mementos from last October – one of the hats he wore through post-race, Jordan’s voicemail with his personal congratulations. Other keepsakes he’ll be reunited with later, after their rotation through the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Among those is the No. 23 Toyota he drove, a previous-generation Cup car that now has historic provenance.

When the Cup Series returns to Talladega for Sunday’s GEICO 500 (3 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM), Wallace and 23XI will figure among the favorites. The team finished second in the Daytona 500 earlier this year and contended until the last handful of laps at Atlanta Motor Speedway’s new hybrid superspeedway configuration.

MORE: Talladega weekend schedule | Latest odds

The reminders of the last Talladega race will travel with them, some of them tangible. Wallace has already indicated this week that he’ll sport a mustache look – a good-luck charm from his last appearance there. But there’s also the reminder of the sense of accomplishment and the hint that it could be repeated.

“You definitely go to some of these speedway tracks going, ‘hey, we won the last race, we can do this again.’ Talladega is one of them, obviously,” Wheeler says. “It’s the last event we were there, we won. So I don’t say it’s a swagger, but there’s a confidence saying we can do it again, and I think it’s where it makes you very powerful in what you’re doing, because people around you, too, realize you’re a good speedway racer or a team, and it takes people helping you to win these races or following you to help win races. Having that confidence and people around you having that confidence in the car and the team does make you faster and have a better chance.”

Within the memories was validation. Wallace was in his fourth full Cup Series season, and while he’d won at other levels, it had been 142 races into his career without breaking through. That drought was fodder for naysayers and social-media hecklers, a group that bristles at his willingness to take a stand on social justice issues and that conflates his position in the sport with privilege. No singular act would shut that narrative down, but the Talladega victory at least made the noisemakers take a hard look at the scoreboard.

2022 April22 Bubba Wallace 5 Main Image
Alejandro Alvarez | NASCAR Digital Media

“You know, what’s happened there in the past with some comments that have been made about him from people out there — I’m not even gonna call them fans — I think it makes it sweeter that he won there,” Blaney says. “So I know he’s looking forward to getting back. I’m looking forward to getting back.

“So I don’t want him to win again, I will say that,” Blaney added with a laugh, knowing that he’ll be seeking his third Talladega win for Team Penske this weekend. “That was a really special one, and it was a fun night to be able to spend that with him. …  I mean, before you get your first Cup win, you’re always questioning, OK, can I make it here? Can I compete for wins? Can I do this, that? And when you get your first Cup win, like, it just boosts your confidence a ton when you’re able to do that and kind of break through. So yeah, I think obviously it’s gonna help anybody out confidence-level-wise.”

Wallace’s profile elevated in the days after his first win, his name ringing out on the evening news – nationally and beyond. He’s since been the subject of a behind-the-scenes documentary on Netflix, and his media rounds have reached beyond the sphere of motorsports.

In terms of his race-day approach, Wallace insists that little has changed – from his reliance on his 23XI team, his trust in longtime spotter Freddie Kraft and his faith in his own superspeedway abilities. The return trip through the Talladega gates this weekend may bring that flood of memories back, but there are still memories yet to make.

“I think going back, obviously, all the eyes are on you, which I don’t want, but it’s just how it works. That’s how any competition, any league works,” Wallace says. “Somebody wins at that place, and then they come back. It’s like, ‘can they do it again?’ So it’s just like, well, can I kind of get through qualifying first, can I get to my motorhome first. But I think in just being there, appreciating where we’re at as a team, where I’m at as a driver, and just going out and racing, racing and having fun. I genuinely have fun at these plate races and that goes a long way, too, when you’re having fun, and you can make some of the moves that may be questionable early on and you’re like, ‘ah, we’ll be OK. Our car’s fast.’

“I keep saying it, but we’re not gonna change a thing of what we do, and Freddie and I know what to do. And that’s it.”