Bubba Wallace Is Becoming The Tiger Woods of NASCAR

Racial integration is something that has been a fixture in our nation’s history for the longest time. In terms of sports, it was not easy. Barriers had to be broken down for African Americans to earn the opportunity to compete at the highest level in their respective sports.

Now, as the national climate changes, a traditionally caucasian dominated sport has found it’s newest star in trailblazer, Bubba Wallace.

Tiger Woods was a star golfer from a young age. From putting against Bob Hope on the Mike Douglas Show, his stardom has only blossomed. Yes, there have been many bumps in the road with injuries and controversy, but Tiger has done something that Bubba has begun to emulate.

Breaking into a white-dominated sport and having success. Tiger was able to do it and do it in a big way by becoming one of the best to ever do it.

Bubba has yet to win a race yet, but whilst driving the number 43 machine for the king, Richard Petty, he has had success. With a handful of top tens in the cup series, Bubba has continued to develop as a racer.

Although he hasn’t had substantial on-track success, off the track he has brought in a new fan base to the sport. African Americans are seeing Bubba as an inspiration and hopefully will flock to racing.

Right now, Bubba is not on the Tiger Woods level of success in terms of accomplishments. However, he could be soon. The notoriety Bubba has gained has made him a household name in mainstream media. He’s dominating the All-Star fan vote and becoming a serious merchandise seller. This revenue could lead some more successful teams with top tier machines to give Bubba a shot.

A team like Hendrick Motorsports could tap Bubba to replace Jimmie Johnson, in what would be a huge move. Or, even another top team like Stewart Haas or Chip Ganassi Racing could give him a shot. Despite significant on track success, Bubba is making a huge impact. Bubba is helping NASCAR make great strides in their continued mission to preach diversity and inclusion in racing as they truly modernize and adapt to society.

NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson speaks about his return to the track

Less than a week after testing positive for COVID-19, Jimmie Johnson will return to the NASCAR Cup Series circuit on Sunday.

Prior to last Sunday’s Big Machine Hand Sanitizer Powered by Big Machine Records at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it had been nearly two calendar decades since Jimmie Johnson’s name didn’t show up on a NASCAR Cup Series scoring monitor.

The 2001 New Hampshire 300, the year’s season finale, was the race in question. It was a rare Friday afternoon excursion, rescheduled from its usual early fall spot after the tragic events of September 11. Of the 42 drivers who partook, four are still racing in the Cup Series full time and five had sons run in either the Cup or Xfinity Series events at IMS over the weekend. The circuit was still known as the “NASCAR Winston Cup Series” at the time. Among the sponsors adorning the machines…some of which were manufactured by Pontiac…were Kmart, Cingular Wireless, and Kodak.

Simply put, it had been a long, long time since Johnson didn’t run a race sanctioned by NASCAR premier series, 663 races to be precise. A positive test of COVID-19 brought upon his absence, revealed less than 48 hours before the green flag waved at Indianapolis.

Johnson took a different seat last Sunday, that of his couch from his home in Colorado. There, Johnson watched Xfinity Series regular Justin Allgaier pilot his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, the first time someone else took over the car since it hit the track for the first time in 2002. In that vehicle, Johnson has won seven Cup Series titles (tied for the most all-time with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt) and made countless racing memories. This season is set to be Johnson’s final year of full-time racing, one that has already been interrupted by the virus’ initial outbreak. His diagnosis prevented him from a final victory lap at IMS, where he had won four times (most among NASCAR drivers other than Jeff Gordon).

Sunday wasn’t the hardest part, though. According to Johnson, the toughest stretch was the hours that preceded it.

“It was just such a weird set of events,” Johnson recalled in a Friday morning conference call. “I would say that Saturday night trying to go to sleep was probably the most difficult time for me, knowing that I wasn’t going to be in the car. Sunday morning was still pretty tough, but I felt like Saturday night was probably the peak of the emotions that go with missing a race and the consecutive start streak coming to an end. Not being in the car, my final year, all the things that you would naturally think of, Saturday night was the peak.”

Johnson wouldn’t be at the hallowed racing ground of Indianapolis. But once he partook in the No. 48 team’s weekly prerace meeting, he knew things were going to work out.

He admitted that Sunday morning “wasn’t great”, but things drastically improved upon hearing the voices of his crew and encouraging them for the 400-mile test ahead. The only special advice he had for Allgaier was to “just to drive the wheels off of” the famed No. 48 machine.

“I was able to just hear the voices of my crew guys, pump them up, and just be involved in that team moment,” he recalled. “It’s crazy how it just relaxed me because I was convinced that I wasn’t going to watch the race. I was like I can’t do it. But having that moment to talk to (crew chief Cliff Daniels), all the guys, Justin was clearly on the call and to hear the words he had to say to the team, it let a lot of that go and I actually watched the race.”

The No. 48 didn’t last long on Sunday. Allgaier had to start from the back of the field and made up 11 positions by the time a competition caution came out on lap 14 of 160, but he got involved in a pit road pile-up that took out several competitors. A lost tire damaged the car beyond repair and relegated Allgaier to a 37th-place finish. Fortunately for Johnson, a good majority of his competition on the NASCAR playoff bubble likewise struggled on Sunday, leaving him a healthy 46 points ahead of the 17th-place cutoff in the standings.

Two negative tests and a physician’s approval later, Johnson will return to the track for Sunday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, FS1). Johnson has drawn the 20th spot in the starting lineup for the 267-lap event. Kentucky is one of four venues on the circuit that has yet to host Johnson in victory lane. His 83 victories are most among active drivers and tied for fifth all-time with Cale Yarborough. The most recent of those victories, however, came back in June 2017 at Dover, 110 races ago. It’s by far the longest drought of his career.

Even if Johnson is forced to leave Sparta without a victory, the track holds a special, nostalgic place in his heart. The track hosted some of his early HMS tests prior to his Cup Series debut. Results, however, have been hard to come by. He has finished 30th or worse in three of his last four Kentucky visits and crashed in his lone Xfinity trek in 2001 (when it was known as the Busch Series). A trophy on Sunday would not only clinch a playoff berth but also help his career come full circle…and provide a storybook ending to what’s been one of the most challenging weeks of Johnson’s life.

“I have positive vibes from (the Hendrick tests), but my racing experiences there from the Busch Series days and even in the Cup car has just been demanding and tough,” Johnson said. “I hope to conquer the track from that personal standpoint. And then clearly what I’ve been through, what my friends and family have been through, what my fan base has been through in the last week, it would be nice to leave there with a trophy.”

A sense of family helped Johnson get through the process of recovery. Earlier this week, Johnson was one of several drivers who stood in defense of Bubba Wallace when U.S. President Donald Trump falsely accused the circuit’s only African-American driver of passing a noose found in his garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway last month off as a hoax. Johnson confirmed a post marked with the tag “#IStandWithBubba” and an image of the stylized No. 43 seen on Wallace’s Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet.

Even more concerning to Johnson than the status of his No. 48 was how his family was coping with the diagnosis. Johnson confirmed he never experienced any COVID-19 symptoms but was tested after his wife Chandra experienced what she thought was seasonal allergies (Chandra has likewise been asymptomatic otherwise). Fortunately, neither of the couple’s daughters, Genevieve and Lydia, were said to be ill. The pair gave the command to start engines prior to the Pocono 350 two weekends ago and Johnson revealed on Twitter that Genevieve, nicknamed Evie, turned 10 on Tuesday.

“The kids are in a good place with it all, I think as good as they can be for their ages,” Johnson said. “But it is tough, they quickly forget how diligent they need to be. I guess ultimately, I know this is a point in time that their little minds will never forget what their parents went through.”

Even with all the delays and the potential of one last ride at Indianapolis delayed at the very least, Johnson has shown no signs of straying away from that path of a final full-time season. But he truly believes that his last season can be one of growth, learning, and understanding thanks to what he’s experienced in this process and the changing landscape across NASCAR.

Though the situation may appear dire at times, Johnson’s refusing to let these current affairs take his sense of positivity.

“It’s been an interesting year and at times wonder why it’s happened in my final full-time season in Cup. (But) when you turn on the news and look around and see how many people are really ill from this, the seriousness and the severity of the pandemic, it quickly fades out of my mind,” Johnson said. “This is a big problem, it’s a pandemic. So, I’ve really kept my emotions in check. I’m just trying to figure out how to keep my family safe and how I can ultimately learn from everything that’s going on.”

“We’ve dealt with a lot in the last four months as a nation and a world, so (we’re) trying to learn and grow, trying to teach and educate my children. Try to lead by example. I’ve been able to learn that my challenges are watched closely by my kids and how I deal with that adversity is ultimately teaching them. And with having a tough couple of years professionally and then now it’s ramped up to this level. Again, I just try to find the right spin on it. It’s easy to get into a dark headspace on all this. My wife and I are trying so hard to not let that happen and try to teach our children the best that we can.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: No. 24 driver William Byron remains hopeful on the cusp of the playoffs

Three years into his NASCAR Cup Series career, William Byron’s pleased with his current trajectory despite a lack of victory lane visits.

The paths of William Byron and Didi Gregorius will likely never cross. After all, one’s a driver on the NASCAR Cup Series national tour and the latter is a Major League shortstop in Philadelphia. The two, however, share an exclusive, if not unspoken, bond in that each held the most unenviable position their premier circuit has ever seen.

Both Byron and Gregorius were the ones to follow the trails of athletic icons from the 1990s that changed their respective sports forever and stretched their respective careers into the new century. Each complimented their on-field/track exploits with larger-than-life personalities that brought their sport beyond the pages of, say, Sports Illustrated. But that’s how big Jeff Gordon and Derek Jeter respectively were to auto racing and baseball. Gregorius spent the past five seasons stepping out of Jeter’s cleat trails as the New York Yankees’ shortstop and made a name for himself. Such efforts were rewarded with a new, $14 million deal with the Phillies.

Three seasons in, Byron’s still working on that second part.

The 22-year-old’s spot in Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 24 Chevrolet is safe by all accounts. But a visit to victory lane still awaits 88 starts into his Cup career. Technically speaking, he isn’t the “true” successor to Gordon, as Chase Elliott took over the car for two years after Gordon’s 2015 retirement. But Elliott has since made a name for himself in the rebranded No. 9 for Hendrick, leaving the current burden to Byron, who won the 2017 Xfinity Series title less than two weeks before he turned 20.

Pressure, however, isn’t getting to Byron. He’s currently teetering on the brink of the NASCAR Cup Series playoff picture, holding the 14th of 16 postseason seeds and 48 points ahead of the cutoff. The Gordon successor is more pleased about the progress he’s making on his third go-around.

“It’s definitely easy to get frustrated with the fact that we haven’t won,” Byron said in a Friday afternoon Zoom teleconference. “I think that at this point, just with our progression we had last year, at this point we would have thought we’d have a few more late-race chances at it. I think we’ve had some cars on some days that were capable of winning.”

“But, to be honest with you, we’ve had six or seven issues this year that have really been no fault of one thing or one individual, but we’ve just as a team, we’ve just not executed in those situations. We’ve had flat tires and different issues. Those were some of our best races and some of our best chances to win and unfortunately, those kind of got washed away for us. But honestly, we just try to continue bringing the same speed and we know if we can bring that same speed that we’ve had on those weekends when things did go wrong, we’ll give ourselves a shot to win. So, yeah, we expect to win. We hope to win soon. We’ve just got to continue to bring the speed to do it and hopefully execute those moments.”

There has, indeed, been a good share of things to smile upon in the No. 24 stall. Byron’s squad won one of the two qualifying races prior to the Daytona 500 and has won stages at Darlington and Indianapolis since NASCAR returned from its coronavirus pause. Since a wreck took him out of the early stages of Daytona’s season-opener, Byron has finished 15 consecutive races, running all 32 laps in the process.

Bad luck, however, like a flat tire in the latter event on Sunday, has denied him a win and kept him on the playoff bubble. General consistency has followed. Last season saw Byron beat out Hendrick teammates Alex Bowman and Jimmie Johnson in top-ten finishes. But Byron, backed by the expertise of former Johnson pit boss Chad Knaus (who was on board for all seven of Johnson’s titles), is enthused by the progress he’s made in his third season.

“I think we’ve learned through the adversity that we’ve had this year,” Byron noticed. “Our pit crew has improved. I think that was an area that we needed to improve at the beginning of the year, and we made some changes and things to improve that. So, I think we’re there now. We just have to keep ourselves in a good points position and then, get toward the Playoffs and hopefully turn that speed and potential into there so we can maybe go farther than the Round of 12 like we did last year.”

Byron has even taught himself to use misfortune as a positive experience.

“When adversity would hit me at the beginning of my career, it really affected me toward the next week and I would really kind of race differently because of it,” Byron said in a look back. Maybe (I’d be) more conservative or more aggressive, trying to make up for it. Whereas now I feel I just don’t look at it and I don’t really pay attention to the bad fortune that happens. It definitely frustrated me a lot the day of the race, and really maybe even carries over until the next morning, but that’s really it. Once we get past the next morning, it really doesn’t affect me anymore. And that’s been a difference for me. I think that’s just maturity, probably, and the race team and myself.”

Byron has drawn a starting position of 21st as the NASCAR Cup Series descends upon Kentucky Speedway for Sunday afternoon’s Quaker State 400 (2:30 p.m. ET, FS1).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson ready for his last dance at Charlotte

Jimmie Johnson, Nascar

If Johnson is going secure a playoff spot in his final NASCAR season, there’s no better place to clinch than this week’s Charlotte couple.

Unlike, say, Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera, Jimmie Johnson needs to earn his retirement gifts as he makes his final visit across NASCAR venues across the country.

NASCAR will continue its revival tour on Sunday night at its Charlotte hub (6 p.m. ET, Fox), the first half of a doubleheader to be completed on Wednesday. The opening event is the Coca-Cola 600, a Memorial Day weekend tradition dating back to 1961 and the longest event on the circuit at its titular 600 miles.

Such an event is perhaps the perfect counterargument to the idea of NASCAR not being a sport. A test of skill and endurance, the race features 400 laps around the 1.5-mile track and a runtime that would make Yankees-Red Sox games blush. It’s enough to make even the toughest drivers shake in their boots.

Johnson, however, has spent nearly two decades defying NASCAR norms. His final season of full-time racing isn’t about to change that.

His No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has been a mainstay atop the Charlotte leaderboards since his 2002 arrival. In terms of mid-2000s dominance, Johnson had a better stranglehold on CMS than USC had on major college football. His name appeared in the top three of eight straight Charlotte races. That includes a streak of four consecutive wins during the pair of visits during the 2004-05 seasons. Most drivers, in comparison, are lucky to get eight total top three finishes throughout the course of their entire careers.

“There is no doubt I’ll have a flood of emotions when we start our engines these next two races,” Johnson remarked to Jeff Wackerlin of Motor Racing Network. “I’m going to miss it.”

NASCAR is set to return Charlotte later this fall during the postseason, but that race will come at its “roval” configuration (part-oval, part-road course). Johnson has made a name for himself at the full-on oval with eight wins overall, the most in the track’s history.

Much like the popularity of Von Dutch and Justin Guarini, Johnson’s mid-2000’s dominance has struggled to translate in the decades beyond. His last win in the 600-mile event came in 2014 and he has gone home empty-handed in four straight Charlotte visits. The track is more recently known as the site of one of Johnson’s most heartbreaking moments. With the track in its roval setup for the first time on the Cup Series circuit, Johnson was battling to move forward in the 2018 NASCAR playoffs. Running second behind Martin Truex Jr. in the dying stages, Johnson was relatively secure in points.

It was never like Johnson to be satisfied with second place. Alas, that will and desire cost him nearly on the final laps of the Bank of America Roval 400.

Contract with Truex put them both sideways, and Johnson was forced to partake in the remainder of the playoffs as an on-track observer. It’s been part of an uncharacteristic win drought for Johnson. The No. 48 Chevrolet hasn’t visited victory lane in 101 consecutive events, the last celebration coming in the Dover spring event in 2017. Johnson has 83 Cup Series victories to his name, which ensnares him in a tie for fifth-most all-time with Cale Yarborough.

“Took myself out of a shot at the championship and obviously affected their day which I feel bad about,” Johnson told USA Today’s Michelle R. Martinelli at the time. “I wish I wouldn’t have been so focused on a race win and I could have transferred and kept my championship hopes alive, but we had such a good car and just one of those split-second decisions to race for the win instead of for the points and it bit me.”

Now, it’s all about the win.

Even with the COVID-19 enforced delay, Johnson has spent 2020 making things right and creating an opportunity to go out on the right note. Entering his final week at Charlotte’s 1.5-mile oval incarnation, Johnson sits in 12th place in the Cup Series point standings. Flashes of his former brilliance have been on display in the circuit’s early stanzas. A late crash took him out of contention at the Daytona 500, but Johnson has followed it up with four finishes in the top dozen over the last five races.

The lone exception was the first Darlington event last Sunday. Johnson had the lead at the end of the first stage, but contact with Chris Buescher’s No. 17 Ford put him into the wall and a 38th-place finish. He recovered to finish eighth in the second half of the visit to Darlington later in the week.

“It was a good rebound from a few days before; I wish I could have that weekend back,” Johnson said to Jerry Bonkowski of NBC Sports after the race. “I really felt like we had things going our way there and could have capitalized. But it’s nice to be back. Good finish in the top-10.”

The pause of live sporting events causes us to forget that they have a way of using timeliness to create uplifting moments. If Johnson can earn himself a playoff berth by winning at the track he formerly held a monopoly on, it would be perhaps the loudest announcement yet for the return of athletics, as well as a moment the sports-loving public can enjoy as a collective unit.

A win would more than likely put Johnson back into the NASCAR playoffs. If it comes on Sunday, Johnson would tie the legendary Darrel Waltrip for fourth the all-time wins list and at the top of the list of Coca-Cola 600 trophies. 

Johnson is certainly off to a good start this week at CMS. With NASCAR holding qualifying prior Sunday’s even, the No. 48 Chevrolet posted a time of 29.799, good for a front-row situation. Kurt Busch (29.790) was the only one quicker than Johnson, putting his No. 1 Chevrolet on the pole.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags