NASCAR: Talladega will nonetheless be long remembered for unity

NASCAR

Some would say that recent revelations make Monday’s walk for Bubba Wallace null and void, but the NASCAR community sent a brilliant message.

NASCAR has every right to feel uncomfortable and awkward right now. Having said that, no odometer can measure how much it beats the alternative.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation concluded on Tuesday that a rope fashioned into a noose in the garage area of Talladega Superspeedway was not a hate crime against Bubba Wallace, the lone African-American driver on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit. The rope, found in his No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet’s garage stall, was labeled a garage door pull and had been in place since last October’s Cup weekend at least (Paul Menard and his No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford occupied the stall at that time).

This announcement came two days after NASCAR labeled it a noose and had called the FBI in to investigate the incident and a little over 24 hours after drivers stood behind Wallace at the rescheduled GEICO 500 on Monday afternoon at Talladega. In a show of solidarity, Wallace’s competitors pushed the No. 43 to the front of the field and embraced him after the invocation and national anthem.

Feeling validated, a vocal subsection of the NASCAR fanbase and beyond has been quick to label Wallace a liar in the wake of the FBI’s report. Common taunts have compared Wallace to disgraced actor Jussie Smollett, who was indicted on six counts of making false police reports in a hate crime hoax in Chicago. Others are eager to write Monday’s happenings, a show of unity capped off by a thrilling finish won by Wallace’s close friend Ryan Blaney, off as a humiliating day that saw NASCAR give in to supposed political causes.

At this point, it’s hard to call either case true.

If it isn’t apparent by now, it’s fair to admit that this situation was not handled perfectly. Perhaps NASCAR could’ve waited until the FBI investigation was completed before putting out a statement. NASCAR has handled current events very well. They could’ve kept their proceedings in a bubble, sticking to sports in a time when fans and viewers desperately try to cling to that concept. Instead, they bestowed a message of support to change and demonstrations with a message to fans and drivers that was hard to miss: prior to the start of the Fold of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway two weeks ago. NASCAR President Steve Phelps addressed the nation’s spurs for change immediately before the cars took the green flag…a point where many viewers would undoubtedly be watching. The Confederate flag, a popular accessory among the predominantly-southeastern fanbase, was also banned from raceday vicinities. 

But a rare condemnation of going too fast has now opened Wallace to a new round of criticism, adding to a former batch that was, obviously unfairly, directed toward the 26-year-old for the color of his skin. Wallace has every right to remain frustrated, especially in these tenuous times in our nation. That frustration was seen when Wallace appeared on CNN on Tuesday night. While Wallace backed NASCAR, he reiterated his belief to Don Lemon that he believes that, its 2019 prescience accounted for, what he saw in his stall was a noose. (UPDATE: Wallace posted on Twitter on Wednesday that he was “relieved…that the investigation that this wasn’t what we feated it was”)

Those who shift the blame toward Wallace have perhaps never walked a mile in his shoes.  During the Talladega proceedings, apologists of the Confederate flag stood outside the track (as well as flying a banner bearing the flag over the track) and waved the symbol created to represent a secession from the United States of America in defiance of NASCAR’s ban. A combination of Confederate flag apologists attempting to disturb the peace and a series of African-American deaths by hanging (seen by some as lynching) vindicated NASCAR’s decision to do their due diligence and vindicates a frustration that Wallace’s competitors can’t have. No evidence points to Wallace being the one who started the incident. NASCAR President Steve Phelps clarified in a Tuesday conference call that Wallace and his team “had nothing to do with this”. Yet, he’s going to be the one who bears the brunt of criticism toward this issue.

Even if the FBI determined that no hate crime was apparent (NASCAR is continuing its own investigation for the time being), it’s naive to say that Wallace hasn’t faced opposition for his speaking out. It should be understandable why the mere thought, the mere image of a noose, its purpose notwithstanding, had an effect on Wallace, who is only the seventh African-American driver to compete at the Cup Series level. Such dedication toward a flag created for the primary purpose of preserving the institution of slavery defied any idea that Wallace has faced no obstacles in his quest for equality.

That’s where Monday came in.

Perfection is rare to achieve in any form of sports. Sports’ mere status in our society has been pushed down a few notches during this period. Even as some leagues attempt to make a comeback, some participants are turning down an opportunity to do so to focus on social justice. But the display at Talladega showed how sports can, at the very least, play a part in an ongoing healing process, one this country is in desperate need of.

Tensions were understandably high when the green flag was ready to wave. But faced with the mere thought of a threat toward one of their own, the NASCAR community came together. The effects of Monday’s event will be felt for a long time. Drivers, crews, and management alike made it clear: mess with one, you mess with all.

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“(Monday) to me as a sport was one of the most important days we’ve had. It’s one of the most kind of indelible print on my mind until the day I die, seeing the support that Bubba had from not just the drivers but all the crews, all the officials who were down in pit road, anyone who was part of that footprint. Everyone wanted to show their support for a family member of NASCAR. We are one big family. We are one large community and everyone’s belief is that someone was attacking a member of our family.”

“It turned out that that was not the case, but at the time that’s what our industry thought, so drivers, crew, our officials, everyone supported Bubba Wallace and the 43 team, and that was a very powerful image in not just the history of our sport but I think in all sports.”

Several drivers also expressed no regrets toward the display. Jimmie Johnson, one of the primary organizers of the display, reiterated his support for Wallace. Rookie Tyler Reddick did the same.

With Wallace inadvertently subjected to more scrutiny, having his back becomes more important than ever. With their display and support thereafter, drivers made it clear that they would rise up for Wallace at the slightest sign of trouble.

“I support him 100 percent. I’m always going to be behind him,” Blaney said after his Monday victory. “If you run afoul to Bubba, you run afoul to me. (He’s) just a great person and a great family he comes from that makes him who he is today.”

“It was just an honor to be a part of that.  Not only the drivers, but the crew members and the fans that were in attendance as well, NASCAR.  That’s something I think everyone will remember for a long time. It showed how much we support not only Darrell.  That was the main reason we were doing it, to support Darrell.  But everybody that has been oppressed not only for the past two weeks but for a long time.”

Despite responding well to recent events, it’s clear that things won’t be a green-white-checkered sprint, but rather a marathon more akin to the Coca-Cola 600. There’s going to be some bumps in the road, but Wallace and NASCAR are trying to do the right thing, go for equality.

It’s a good sign that no one in the NASCAR garage was intentionally harmful, but this misstep does not eliminate the injustices and instances of racism seen on a daily basis. The process needs work, but NASCAR and Wallace are doing their part to ensure that the fight against systemic racism rages on even when its no longer trending.

Mistakes have been made in this process. But if one of them produces unity, it’s certainly hard to argue the merits against it.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Ryan Blaney comes home first in an emotional, wild Talladega thriller

An eventful afternoon of NASCAR Cup Series racing at Talladega Superspeedway ended with Ryan Blaney taking the win by a minuscule margin.

Blaney, Ryan Blaney.

Deja vu descended upon Talladega Superspeedway on Monday afternoon, as the No. 12 Team Penske Ford won its second consecutive event, the GEICO 500 at the NASCAR Cup Series’ longest track. Much like his win in last October’s postseason thriller, Blaney’s margin of victory was 0.007 seconds. This time, he held off Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in a finish that came down to the literal final line.

Blaney’s victory was his first since the aforementioned playoff race from last October and the fourth win of his Cup Series career. He has been one of the circuits hottest drivers since it returned from the coronavirus-induced pause five weeks ago, as Monday’s posting was his sixth finish in the top four over the last seven races.

“The past month and a half has been really good for us,” Blaney said in a postrace Zoom conference. “We’ve had some really good runs. We’ve had really fast cars, had a chance to win I feel like every race the last month and a half. It just really hasn’t fallen our way. We just haven’t been in the right place at the right time or not been quite fast enough.”

“(It’s) nice to finally break through, get the first one of the year. Hopefully, this opens the floodgates here and we can get on a roll. This team has been awesome. They’ve been so much fun to work with all year.”

The thrilling finish was the finishing touch of an emotional visit to Talladega. Before the race, the NASCAR community stood in support of Bubba Wallace, the driver of the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet. After the race’s postponement from its original date on Sunday, NASCAR revealed that a noose had been found in the garage stall of Wallace, the only African-American driver on the circuit.

Shortly before the green flag flew, drivers and crew members stood alongside Wallace as his car was wheeled to the front of the field. With team owner and NASCAR legend Richard Petty by his side, the racing community stood behind the No. 43 pair during the invocation and national anthem. Each of Wallace’s 39 competitors then embraced him, starting with his close friend Blaney. The two have been racing alongside each other since they were each 10 years old.

“I think it’s great that everyone rose up, Bubba included, and really came together,” Blaney said of the prerace demonstration. “I don’t want it to be remembered as a terrible day or a bad day in NASCAR. I want it to be remembered as there was an incident and we all overcame it together, showed that we were not going to take it anymore.”

“You may not like each other all the time, may tick each other off on the racetrack from time to time. (But) at the end of the day we’re going to support each other. What really got me was when we got Bubba’s car to the front there, he had to take a little bit to pause and compose himself because it was a very emotional moment for him. I think it was emotional for him because everyone was supporting him. It’s just something different that I couldn’t personally be a part of because I’ve never been in Bubba’s position, but I’m going to support him the best I can.”

Under a new technical rules package, competitive racing dominated the day. Monday’s race featured 177 passes for the lead under green flag conditions, with 19 drivers leading at least one lap. A tightly-packed battle for the lead was set to be altered by fuel mileage, but Jimmie Johnson’s spin on the penultimate lap set up a two-lap overtime finish. Several cars pitted for precious fuel, but Blaney stayed out to pace the field alongside Kevin Harvick.

Harvick got off to a quick restart thanks to a push from Chris Buescher, but the field narrowed up as a get-together in the penultimate turn took out several cars. As the lead pack reached the start/finish line for the final time, Blaney took the lead and made contact with Erik Jones and John Hunter Nemechek. Further chaos erupted as the field completed the final lap, but Blaney was able to narrowly steal the victory away from Stenhouse. A spinning Aric Almirola finished the race backward but came home in a respectable third-place while Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Jones respectively rounded out the top five.

Blaney’s win was his first under new crew chief Todd Gordon and the fifth win for Team Penske this season (teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have two each). He also becomes the first driver to win consecutive Talladega events since Jeff Gordon swept the yearly couple in 2007.

The Cup Series will return to Talladega for a playoff event in October.

Halfway through its regular season, Cup proceedings now turn to a weekend doubleheader at Pocono Raceway, the first of its kind. The Pennsylvania landmark, known as the “Tricky Triangle” will run the Pocono Organics 325 on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox) and will immediately follow it up with the Pocono 350 on Sunday (4 p.m. ET, FS1). Entries from each of NASCAR’s lower-tier national series will precede each event.

Race Notes

  • Toward the end of the first of two 60-lap stages, the event was stalled by a 57-minute rain delay. Rookie Tyler Reddick won the stage, becoming the first freshman to do so since Daniel Suarez at Watkins Glen’s 2017 event. A late stop for fuel relegated Reddick to the 20th position, but he departs Talladega as the holder of the final playoff spot.
  • Monday’s event welcomed 5,000 fans to Talladega, which normally draws crowds of about 175,000.
  • Wallace was in contention for most of the day and even led a lap, but low fuel forced him to pit during the Johnson-induced caution. He would finish 14th and be applauded by the crowd that was admitted.
  • Nemechek was the top finishing rookie, overcoming a spin at lap 96 of 188 to come home eighth.
  • Chase Elliott briefly took the standings’ points lead from Harvick, but a crash at lap 135 ended his day. He was one of four drivers whose day ended due to crash damage, joining Brennan Poole, Joey Gase, and Austin Dillon. Matt Kenseth’s rear hub issues relegated him to a last-place posting in 40th.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

VIDEO: NASCAR drivers rally around Bubba Wallace prior to the start of Talladega race

NASCAR

NASCAR competitors came together to support Wallace, pushing his No. 43 car to the front after a noose was found in his garage stall.

A racist act at Talladega Superspeedway meant to create division instead brought the NASCAR community closer than ever to protect one of their own.

Hours after the postponement of Sunday’s GEICO 500, NASCAR announced that a noose was found in the garage stall of Bubba Wallace, the only African-American driver on the circuit. Prior to the event’s rescheduled start on Monday afternoon, Wallace’s competitors made it clear that such racism would not be tolerated.

Wallace’s No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet was pushed to the front of the field as drivers and crews literally stood behind him in a show of support. Standing alongside Wallace was NASCAR legend and team owner Richard Petty. The seven-time champion and winner of a Cup Series record 200 races has avoided coming to the track for safety concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic, but came to Talladega in support of the current driver of his iconic No. 43.

After the invocation and national anthem, each of the 39 other drivers competing in Monday’s race hugged Wallace before taking to their own cars. Wallace began the race in the 24th position, placed via a random draw earlier in the week. Additionally, the Talladega infield bore the stenciled message “#IStandWithBubba”.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps addressed the media about the incident about two hours before the green flag waved at Talladega. Phelps confirmed that NASCAR is working in conjunction with the FBI to find the perpetrator.

“This is a difficult time for our sport. We are going to react swiftly,” Phelps said. “We’re going to use all the means, resources at our disposal and those of the FBI to make sure this person or persons are caught swiftly and severely.”

Phelps said that the perpetrator will be “unequivocally” banned from the sport when discovered.

“They will be banned from this sport for life. There is no room for this at all. We won’t tolerate it. They won’t be here. I don’t care who they are, they will not be here.”

As protests and demonstrations against systemic racism have risen throughout the country, Wallace has been one of the most prevalent voices advocating for change. He was a driving voice behind NASCAR’s ban of the Confederate battle flag and his car at Martinsville Speedway bore the “#BlackLivesMatter” slogan.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Drivers ready for fresh, new chaos at Talladega

NASCAR’s visits to Talladega Superspeedway have always been unpredictable, but adjustments to Sunday’s race could bring a new form of bedlam.

The NASCAR Cup Series’ yearly pair of visits to Talladega Superspeedway produce untold gallons of sweat even during their normal visits in April and October. Affectionately known as “‘Dega”, the longest track on the circuit (2.66 miles) routinely hosts tightly-packed racing and speeds that regular linger around 180-190 miles an an hour. These factors often play a big role in producing “The Big One”, the name given to the multi-car pile-ups that can turn contenders into afterthoughts in the blink of an eye.

Now add a new rules package and a lack of practice and testing…all on the first full day of summer.

The potential for chaos in Sunday’s GEICO 500 (3 p.m. ET, Fox) became so great that NASCAR forced James Davison to push his series debut a week. Davison, an Australian-born driver whose experience has come mostly on the open-wheel and sports car disciplines, was set to pilot the No. 77 Chevrolet for Spire Motorsports (the car that won last year’s rain-shortened summer race at Daytona with Justin Haley behind the wheel), but NASCAR rescinded their approval just days prior to the race. Davison will instead premiere at next weekend’s doubleheader at Pocono Raceway and was replaced by B.J. McLeod (who will start 30th).

NASCAR’s ability to be one of the few American sports leagues running during the coronavirus pandemic has been built on its ability to shorten race weekends from a whole weekend to a single day. Cup Series haulers arrived at Talladega on Saturday evening while the lower-tier Xfinity circuit ran its 300-mile event (won by Haley). In this shrinking process, practices and qualifying have been eliminated (save for a session prior to last month’s Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte) and the field has been set by either inverting the finishing order from the prior race or through a random draw. That latter format is how Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota will lead the field to the green flag on Sunday. In another metaphorical victory lap for the sport, Talladega will welcome in 5,000 fans to the race.

Those who repopulate the grandstands will see 40 cars take their first laps in a track characterized by its chaos. It’s an idea that makes even some of NASCAR’s most seasoned names a bit more cautious. Kurt Busch, for example, is worried not about his No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, but rather how other cars will be as they pack into Talladega’s congested lanes.

“With our group at Ganassi and the restrictor plate races that we’ve run together, our set-up balance has been really good in practice right off the truck,” Busch said in a Friday afternoon press conference. “So there haven’t been those challenges of where are we for balance, it allows go on offense right away. The problem with that is other teams. Are they just as good right off the truck? We don’t need to be caught up in a goofy situation early-on.”

Talladega is one of two “restrictor plate” tracks on the NASCAR circuit, the other being Daytona. Installed at an engine’s intake to restrict air and limit its power, the concept was introduced in 1987 and used through last season’s Daytona 500. Currently, NASCAR uses a modified plate concept known as tapered spacers similar to the ones used on other tracks and effectively keep the cars under 200 miles an hour. These modifications are for the safety of the drivers and fans but produce tight racing that often led to massive get-togethers in the cramped asphalt quarters.

Further safety innovations now come into play as NASCAR prepares to make its first visit a restrictor plate track since the most recent Daytona 500 in February. That race ended in near-tragedy, as Ryan Newman’s No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford was involved in a violent airborne wreck while going for the win on the final lap. In the tense aftermath, Newman was removed from the mangled car and taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with serious but non-life-threatening injuries.

Two days later, Newman walked out of the hospital unassisted, accompanied by his daughters Brooklyn and Ashlyn. A head injury sustained in the accident temporarily sidelined him, but the pandemic-induced pause caused him to miss only three Cup Series events. Ironically, a safety feature known as the “Newman Bar” (a bar across the front of the car’s roll cage) was the result of Newman’s crusade to improve driver safety after he was involved in a separate airborne wreck at Talladega in 2009. Some credited the innovation for saving Newman from further injury in February.

Though Newman walked away relatively unscathed, NASCAR made some further adjustments in the name of safety to Talladega set-ups. Smaller holes in the tapered spacers will lead to lowered horsepower and the elimination of aero ducts on superspeedways could cut down on tandem drafting (further analysis on the changes can be found from Fox Sports’ Bob Pockrass here).

“The idea there is reducing the speeds of the car, slowing them down,” NASCAR’s Senior Director of Safety Engineering John Patalak explained in another conference call. “In general, when we can slow the speeds down, it’s going to be of benefit for the crash itself, for the driver in the car. It will also affect the loads on the vehicle and how the SAFER barrier responds. Directionally, it’s the right way to go.”

While the speeds are expected to be down, the fact that not a single lap has been run with such a setup only ensures the potential for chaos to rise.

Drivers, however, are confident in both their own and their rivals’ abilities to keep things under relative control. Ryan Blaney, the winner of last fall’s Talladega playoff event, was particularly excited about the new adjustments.

“There’s a fine line. You need the draft to work to where you get runs on cars, but not monstrous drafts where it’s dangerous to kind of block them and things like that,” Blaney said after a top-three run at last Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “Hopefully, we can find a fair in between. I’m looking forward to it.  I know NASCAR did their research on hopefully trying to figure out a good balance of that.”

“I’ll know in the first couple laps how big the runs are, what kind of gap I need to have to the person behind me to give me the run forward. I’ll know pretty quick what to do with the package,” Homestead winner Denny Hamlin added. “I think we have probably a pretty good idea of it anyway. These ducts are actually a pretty new thing.  Obviously the horsepower being down, that might counter the ducts a little bit with the runs.”

“These drivers are so good, they’re going to figure it out pretty quick. I wouldn’t expect anything out of the ordinary.”

For those spaced out in the massive Alabama gallery, eager to see yet another exciting installment in NASCAR’s return, that last sentence is all they want to hear when it comes to Talladega.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Five underdogs who could steal Talladega

This Sunday, the NASCAR Cup Series will visit Talladega on the first day of summer. Is there a red hot upset in the making?

This weekend, Talladega Superspeedway’s 2.66-mile course will feature mischief and mayhem…and 5,000 of its closest friends will be there to witness it.

The NASCAR Cup Series will welcome back a select number of fans to the track as the GEICO 500 will run 188 circuits on Sunday afternoon (3 p.m. ET, Fox). Talladega is one of several “superspeedways” on the NASCAR schedule and its longest track, one that has been known for big pile-ups and close racing. While Sunday’s race will feature a new technical rules package (one created to avoid scary wrecks like the one involving Ryan Newman at the end of the Daytona 500), Talladega’s penchant for tight racing (similar to Daytona) has often seen upset winners steal the show. Winners of NASCAR races are more or less afforded a spot in the NASCAR playoffs, provided they finish in the top 30 in points.

The Cup Series’ usual suspects (I.e. Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott, etc.) will undoubtedly be in play for GEICO glory. But there could be several underdogs on hand ready to seize their postseason moment…

Austin Dillon

To say it has been an eventful two weeks for Dillon would perhaps be the understatement of the year. He was forced to retire from last Wednesday’s Martinsville race early when the loss of crush panels in his car caused the interior to reach sweltering temperatures. Four days later, he and his wife Whitney welcomed their first child (a son named Ace) before he drove the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet to a seventh-place finish. It’s been part of a solid return to the track for Dillon, who (the Martinsville incident aside) has finished no worse than 11th over the last five races. Such a performance has allowed Dillon to enter Talladega holding the final playoff spot. Ending his win drought at 83 races would certainly help him breathe a lot easier, that last win coming at the 2018 Daytona 500.

Brendan Gaughan

Gaughan has run one full-time Cup Series season (2004) but has kept active on NASCAR’s lower-tier national series. He has been a staple in the part-time car of Beard Motorsports, having run each Cup event at a superspeedway since 2017. The No. 62 Chevrolet has been reasonably competitive in such races, as Gaughan came home seventh in February’s Daytona 500. Last fall, he ran up front all day, posting as high as second at Talladega (after finishing eighth in the spring event) but an aerial wreck relegated him to 27th. Gaughan announced in February that 2020 would be his final NASCAR season. Could he earn an early retirement gift in his penultimate Talladega visit? As a part-time driver with no playoff burden, Gaughn will have zilch to lose on Sunday.

John Hunter Nemechek

The rookie Nemechek (second behind Tyler Reddick in the Rookie of the Year race) has remained competitive in his full-time Cup debut. His No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford has been running at the end of each of the first dozen events in 2020 and Nemechek has completed all but 12 laps on the circuit thus far. Nemechek also finished in the top ten in a pair of Xfinity starts at Talladega, including a sixth-place result last season. A Talladega steal from the mid-budget Front Row squad is not unheard of. The first win in team history came in 2013 when David Ragan and David Gilliland swept the first two slots in an overtime finish at the spring race.

Ryan Newman

It’s great to see Newman back in his No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford after the scary incident at the end of the Daytona 500, but his return has been a bit of a struggle thus far. He has yet to finish in the top ten since his return and an early spin at Homestead long to a long day that ended in 30th. But a Newman victory at Talladega would make for an incredible headline. In addition to his last-lap crash in February, Newman was literal inches away from a victory at last October’s Talladega event, but he lost to Ryan Blaney by .007 seconds. If he’s going to race his way into the playoffs, Newman would have to break a 113-race winless streak. Talladega could present his best opportunity. In five events since October 2017, Newman has earned four top ten finishes, including a pair of runner-up postings.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Mired in a 21st-place hole in the standings, it may be a lot to ask Stenhouse to make up a 63-point playoff deficit, even with the regular season running through late August. Stenhouse has often gone the “wreckers or checkers” route at Daytona and Talladega. Back in 2017, he was able to swipe a playoff spot by winning at both tracks, including his first career victory at the latter, when he started on the pole and held off a furious challenge from Jamie McMurray for the win. If he and the No. 47 JTG Daugherty team have playoff aspirations, they might have to go all out on Sunday.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags