On his 143rd NASCAR Cup race, the 27-year-old Wallace, who had won six times on the lesser truck series, shed a metric ton of doubt. No one needed to tell him he hadn’t done enough. “I was one of those people telling myself I haven’t won,” he said. “It’s tough to get out of that mentality. Man, you just want to go out and compete and win.”
Beginning his Cup career with an under-funded Richard Petty team, Wallace had zero wins and only three top-5 finishes in his first three-plus seasons. Then to start 2021 his backing got a lot more exotic. Wallace went to a new team headed by Michael Jordan – yes, that Michael Jordan – and 46-time winner Denny Hamlin. Toyota threw its weight behind him, and he benefitted from a working relationship with the high-falutin’ Joe Gibbs Racing outfit. If he ever was to show himself a seriously competitive driver, now was the time.
Along the way, as the only Black driver on the starting grid, Wallace bore an unfairly disproportionate burden in his sport during the 2020 social justice movement that followed George Floyd’s murder. He put himself out there decrying the wrongs, no matter how uncomfortable it may have made racing’s base. Other drivers filled in behind him with support. But so highly charged and hyper-sensitive were the times that when his team encountered a garage pull-down rope shaped like a noose at the very track where he won Monday, it literally touched off a federal investigation. The FBI determined the rope had been fashioned like that months earlier, long before the stall was assigned to Wallace.
By his own shorthand, Wallace refers to the blowback he experiences from some fans as, “The B.S. that I have to deal with on a daily basis.” He drives with a rather large chip wedged between his shoulder and the HANS device.
His new team has tried to provide Wallace with a steadier, encouraging foundation from which to operate. Hamlin on Monday sang praises of his guy’s abilities on the circuit’s biggest tracks (Wallace had a second this year at the Daytona summer race). “This is not going to be the last time you’ll hear his name at a superspeedway. He’s very, very gifted at them; he has very, very good instincts,” Hamlin said.
And along the way, Hamlin counseled him to tune out the B.S. “I try to say to him don’t get your motivation trying to prove haters wrong. Instead get your motivation from trying to do the people who support you proud.” (Top of that list is Wallace’s mother in Atlanta, with whom he shared a teary phone conversation after the race was called official).
To some extent, he has absorbed the message. “I’m not going to please everybody. And it doesn’t matter if I won by 1,000 laps or won a rain-shortened race, not everybody is going to be happy with it. And that’s OK because I know one person who is happy – and that’s me because I’m a winner and they’re not,” he said.
There will be all kinds of static around Wallace that he still hasn’t gone the distance to win a race. It will be too easy to try to slander and diminish an important victory.
Hard and scarred man that he is, Wallace will have to fight the temptation to do that himself.
Said Wallace afterward, “When you go winless for four years, for me, I’m so hard on myself, just pessimistic. It sends you down a dark path. I am my own worst critic. Today I’m like, hell, yeah, we got a win. But then I’m like you only got a win because it rained. I still can’t let myself enjoy it fully.”
It would be his ultimate loss if Wallace can’t wrap an unqualified bearhug around this win. While it would be naïve to believe that his Monday at Talladega will instantly and magically transform racing and expand its following, the sport still was unquestionable bettered by it.
Not a full race? Nonsense. No one could experience a more complete kind of win.