With summer giving way to fall and the NASCAR playoffs rolling on, stock car racing stands at a moment that could lead to something revolutionary—even beyond the sport.
Twelve drivers remain in the hunt for the Cup Series championship as Round 2 begins this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.
Bubba Wallace is part of the not-dirty dozen, one of a decreasing number of competitors eligible for one of the country’s major sports titles. It’s true that he’s not a favorite, but he has a shot. Among those who don’t, for example, are former champions Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano, who were kicked off the island in the first round.
Wallace survived the opening round with a 14th-place finish Saturday night at Bristol, keeping his 23XI Racing team in the championship show for races at Texas, Talladega and the Charlotte Roval.
After the race, Wallace sat in his car for a few minutes, contemplating the moment even as he heard boos rolling down from the stands. It wasn’t the first time—and likely won’t be the last—that he has been the object of fan abuse.
“I love that s--- right there,” Wallace said. “They counted us out. Like (tennis star) Coco Gauff said, all they are doing is adding fuel to the fire. I love it. I love where I’m at with this team.
“I’m mentally exhausted. We gave it our all there. We battled hard and executed, and that is what we have to do. We know next week is a reset. We just have to go out and have some fun and work our asses off. Thank you to the ones that believe in me. On to next week.”
Wallace is at the bottom of the 12-driver playoff list entering Texas, and Round 2 is particularly difficult, with races at a tough trio of tracks: fast Texas, unpredictable Talladega and Charlotte’s zany road course. But a mixture of troubles experienced by other playoff drivers, the resilience of the 23XI team and the wild-card nature of Talladega could push Wallace into Round 3 of the ladder.
A Cup championship by a Black driver would be one of the most remarkable achievements in sports history. Before Wallace’s two Cup wins (at Talladega in 2021 and Kansas in 2022), Virginian Wendell Scott had been the only African-American with a victory, that scored in December 1963 in a controversial race at long-abandoned Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Florida.
The names of Black racers are few and far between in Cup racing. Other than Wallace, Scott—who drove in 495 races and is a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame—is the only African-American driver with a notable record. He raced from 1961 to 1973, struggling against the wind the entire way, eating picnic lunches on the side of the road with his family when they couldn’t dine at white-only restaurants on race trips.
Scott’s best points finish—a sixth—was scored in 1966 in a time in which seasonal points and championships were determined in a fashion wildly different from today.
Otherwise, there is only a smattering of activity by Black drivers. Several—Joie Ray, Randy Bethea, Elias Bowie and Charlie Scott—drove only one Cup race. The most prominent between Wendell Scott and Wallace was Bill Lester, who logged two Cup starts, one in Xfinity and 143 in trucks.
Lester and Wallace text regularly.
What would a Wallace championship mean to sports at large?
“As far as for people of color, it would be a large celebration,” Lester said. “There would be a lot of euphoria. As far as NASCAR as a whole, I am unqualified to even speculate. There obviously would be some people that would be happy and supportive and a number of people who would be much less so.
“I can’t even imagine all the pressure he’s under—all the anxiety, all the stress. I’m sure it’s been darn near overwhelming.”