Bubba Wallace delivers raw star power for NASCAR’s future

Credit: John Raoux

Credit: John Raoux

Sports entities like NASCAR can market anyone to be the next “Rising Phenom.” It’s all in the packaging, the come-hither emails and advertising blitz.

Darrell “Bubba” Wallace doesn’t need any of that stuff. It slows him down, and he has places to go. Bubba Wallace is going to be a star.

Wallace didn’t win the race, finishing second, but captured the press conference in the infield media center of Daytona International Speedway on Sunday evening. Spent from a day chasing speed in the Daytona 500, Wallace let the moment overwhelm him, a fascinating concoction of tears and laughter, joy and pain, and unfiltered authenticity.

“It’s Daytona. Jesus Christ,” Wallace said, rubbing a towel across his face moments after taking the first question.

Bubba Wallace is going to be a star. Not because he is now the highest-finisher among African-American drivers in the Daytona 500, eclipsing Wendell Scott (13th in 1966). Not because his wing man is team owner Richard Petty, a NASCAR hero. Not because he drives Petty’s iconic No. 43 in his stock-car ride.

Wallace is going to be a star because no packaging is necessary. He doesn’t need a script to tell his story. He can riff, ignoring the talking points, and demand your attention.

Wallace wasn’t past the first question when he saw his mother Desiree and sister Brittany walk into the room. Mom went up to the dais, and they embraced for a while.

“I am so proud of you, baby!” she said as the two hugged and cried in each other’s arms. Brittany followed. Another hug. More tears.

“It’s a sensitive subject,” he said, “but I’m just so emotional over where my family has been the last two years, and I don’t talk about it, but it’s just so hard, and so having them here to support me is — pull it together, bud, pull it together. You just finished second. It’s awesome.”

The journey includes losing his Xfinity Series ride last year after his team shut down, only to see The King of NASCAR throw him a lifeline when Aric Almirola and his sponsor left Richard Petty Motorsports.

Almirola, who now drives for Stewart-Haas Racing, is a talented driver who would have won the Daytona 500 if not for a last-lap nudge from Austin Dillon that many fans perceived as sketchy sportsmanship.

While the focus understandably turned to Dillon — driving the late Dale Earnhardt’s iconic No. 3 — the iconic No. 43 also caused a ruckus on the Internet.

“Second is horrible,” Wallace said, choking back tears again. “But it’s still a good day.”

At 24, Wallace now stands as the first African-American driver since Scott in 1971 with a full-time ride in the Cup Series. Wallace doesn’t bear the same challenges as Scott, who often raced with hand-me-down parts from other drivers and faced overt racism, but money still drives the conversation.

Wallace needs sponsorships in about half of the remaining races, although he did pick up Driving 101 as the primary sponsor this weekend in Atlanta.

We root for the story. We root for the underdog. We root for history.

Wallace delivers all that in a tidy package. A long road remains. Daytona outcomes are always unpredictable outliers. The grind of the mile-and-and-half tracks will ultimately determine if Wallace is fit to make a competitive run at drivers such as Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch.

But the young man is good. And it has taken 47 years to get us from Scott to a kid named Bubba.

For all its marketing and push for diversity, NASCAR can’t manufacture stars in race shops. The cars may look homogenous, with standard specifications. The one-size-fits-all model is different when the driver gets behind the wheel.

“The ‘It’ factor is not skin color,” Wallace told ESPN at the start of Speedweeks, “… because I’m pretty good.”

If the marketing and the magic come together, “The King and I” sounds like a perfect pitch for the 2018 NASCAR season. Pull it together, kid.