Thursday, 08 December 2022

Salute to Bubba Wallace, and all the underdog winners at Talladega Featured

Posted On Saturday, 09 October 2021 03:07 Written by
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Bubba Wallace earned his first career Cup victory at Talladega this past Monday. Bubba Wallace earned his first career Cup victory at Talladega this past Monday. Photo courtesy of NASCAR

After the long weekend we experienced at Talladega — with three wild races all ending with first-time winners, and the ultimate capper of Bubba Wallace making history with his first career win after a strong charge to the front before the rains hit — there’s a lot that can be said.

I could talk about all the “firsts” that happened with Bubba’s win at Talladega, and there’s a lot of them, but that’s been covered ad nauseam. 

I could talk about the historical importance of Bubba’s win — but all you have to do is watch Bubba’s emotional interview after the win was announced and you’ll see in his eyes and hear it in his voice as he absorbs the reality of what he’s achieved and why it matters. I couldn’t say it any better than he did in that interview, nor would I try. And if you as a fan can listen to that interview, and still try to claim that this isn’t a significant win, I suggest you learn a little bit about history. 

The two big stories I see coming out of this weekend are that the underdogs can come out on top with enough dedication and hard work over many years, and that our nation still has some work to do until the type of milestone achieved by Bubba on Monday is no longer a newsworthy event.

First, let’s talk underdogs

Two days before Bubba’s win, we saw a couple big wins by first-time victors in their respective series: Tate Fogleman, usually a backmarker in the Truck series, won in controversial fashion after turning John Hunter Nemechek in the trioval, and then a respected independent driver named Brandon Brown — who had previously scored just three top-5 finishes in 113 races — won the Xfinity race in dramatic fashion by edging out a three-wide battle with Justin Allgaier and Brandon Jones, before the race was ultimately called due to darkness.

The truck series ending is debatable, as many thought Fogleman’s move was dirty, and they may be right. But in the end, Fogleman, whose previous best career finish in Trucks was 9th, took home the trophy. He was underdog #1 in Victory Lane.

But the bigger story Saturday was Brown, underdog winner #2. In an era where superteams with big funding and multiple cars dominate, Brandonbilt Motorsports is a family-run team that didn’t think it would make it past Charlotte in May, and contemplated shutting down. But Brandon worked persistently to gain enough partnerships and funding to keep going (including a viral pitch video), and this win is the payoff, putting the team on everyone’s radar in the best way. Brown’s win was very popular in the garage, as the drivers respected his tenacity as he faced adversity. 

Many fans are dismissive of wins at Talladega, since the pack racing and regular diet of wrecks increases the chances of smaller teams to survive and win in sometimes fluky ways, and I get that criticism. But Brown earned this win. Prior to the race being called, he ran several laps neck-and-neck with teams that are much better funded, and he held his own. While it’s unlikely he will compete for wins on non-plate tracks going forward, what’s not in doubt is his skill as a driver, and that may catapult Brown and his team to higher success in years to come, or perhaps allow Brandon to drive for a better-funded team seeking a talented driver, if he decided to make a move in the future.

As a longtime fan of rugged independent team owner/drivers like Dave Marcis, I salute what Brown has accomplished, because despite Talladega being a bit of a crapshoot, what he did is far from easy, and Underdog #2 deserves all the praise he is getting after reaching Victory Lane.

Bubba’s moment

Let’s move on to the weekend’s ALL CAPS headline, Underdog winner #3 — Bubba Wallace, taking his first Cup series win in his 143rd series start.

A driver with so many detractors, many who have never even watched him race and are getting their talking points from the primordial ooze of racist political hacks, the way Bubba performed Monday at Talladega to take this win is worth celebrating. 

The 23XI Racing team he drives for, which is called a “fifth Gibbs car” by some of his detractors who question Bubba’s skills, is not anything like that. Sure, there are some conversations and potential data sharing between the Toyota teams, natural with co-owner Denny Hamlin driving for Gibbs. But this is a brand new team still finding its footing in the sport. A recent crew chief update to add Bootie Barker has improved team cohesiveness, and next year a champion named Kurt Busch comes on board as teammate to Bubba, but heading into Talladega there was no guarantee that Bubba was going to see a checkered flag this year.

At Talladega, Bubba willed that win to happen with the help of his spotter on that last run. The decisions he made to block, and not to block at times, were at the level of the Cup series’ best drivers. All the drivers knew rain was coming, and they were all hustling to get to the lead, but Bubba (with the help of pusher Brad Keselowski, also a noted plate racer), was the one who got it done.

Anyone who questions whether that was a great drive simply doesn’t know racing. Sure, I would have loved to see the race go full distance, and Bubba likely would have contended and possibly won in that scenario too, but dismissing the win due to the shorter length is simply illogical, and shows deeper biases. 

(And as a side note, NO, the race was not rigged. Don’t even start with that foolishness. NASCAR doesn’t control Mother Nature. And there are 40 drivers who all want to win, even if NASCAR wanted to, fixing a race is impossible)


Don’t hate, congratulate

First, let me say that I was somewhat pleasantly surprised at the reaction after the race. The number of people who were genuinely supportive and congratulating Bubba from inside the sport, and the fan base, was far beyond the number of folks who were salty about his win.

But the diehard haters couldn’t help themselves, and were instantly out in full force on social media after the race on Monday, and all week to be honest. Some of these haters were anonymous internet trolls with 2 followers and a lot of numbers in their screen name (aka racist bots), but others came from the usual slimy corners of the media landscape. The usual tropes were thrown out, mostly harkening to last year’s noose incident at Talladega (they really can’t seem to let that go, and will probably still bring it up if Bubba wins 20 races).

People who have followed the sport for years recognize the consistent efforts Wallace has put in since his youth trying to reach this level and succeed — through K&N (where he won 6 races), Trucks (where he won 6 races), Xfinity and Cup — while also dealing with the fact that many fans simply wouldn’t like him just because of the color of his skin.

That’s a cross almost none of his competitors ever had to bear.

For everyone whining after Talladega and finding new excuses to insult Bubba, here’s the bottom line. The reason this story is big news is because NASCAR traditionally has not been on the right side of racial issues. When you go nearly 60 years between wins by African-American drivers, that’s a pretty glaring hole and shows how inclusivity hasn’t always been the sport’s strong suit.

To its credit, the sport is trying to change. Last year’s show of support when the noose was reported was a landmark moment for the sport, and showed the people running the sport and the competitors in the garage really do want to catch up to modern times and be a truly welcoming sport to people of all races and cultures.

But the amount of bile that follows Bubba online shows that there are still a lot of rotten folks who watch the sport who wish we were in the “good old days” when it wasn’t even safe to announce Wendell Scott as the winner back in the 60s. (Fittingly, Bubba mentioned that part of the reason he is performing better lately is he’s stopped paying attention to social media).

My solution when I encounter these racist dinosaurs online is to ignore them, or perhaps block them so I never have to read their ignorance again, but as long as they linger around, the sport still has a long way to go. 

I’m happy to see all the support Bubba did receive, and am curious about the future of 23XI Racing heading in 2022, but for now, let’s celebrate the underdogs coming through on a big weekend in Talladega, where some new faces got the spotlight … hopefully for the first of many times.

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Matt Myftiu can be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or on Twitter @MattMyftiu.

 



Matt M. Myftiu

Matt Myftiu has been a journalist for two decades with a focus on technology, NASCAR and autos.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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