TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Bubba Wallace still has the voicemail Michael Jordan left him after Wallace’s first Cup Series win. His winning Toyota is currently housed in the NASCAR Hall of Fame but will eventually be his for display.
Wallace’s rain-shortened win at Talladega Superspeedway last October was a career breakthrough and now Wallace wants more. He returns to Talladega for Sunday’s race as a legitimate threat, but the task ahead is 23XI Racing at every track on the NASCAR calendar.
“The opportunity is so great to go out and win any race. There are a lot more races than Talladega and Daytona that we can expect,” Wallace said in an interview with The Associated Press. have races that we look forward to throughout the year, and it’s different from previous years…. Just showing up and knowing you have an opportunity automatically lifts your spirit.
It’s the kick in the firefighting suit Wallace needed in his fifth full season at NASCAR’s top tier. In three seasons driving for Richard Petty Motorsports, Wallace racked up a measly three top five finishes and 34 laps led in 108 races.
But his life changed in 2020 when Wallace, the Cup Series’ only black driver, took a public stand on social and racial justice. His position was amplified as NASCAR was one of the only major sports competing in the early months of the pandemic and companies took notice: Wallace attracted a variety of new NASCAR sponsors to DoorDash, Columbia Sportswear and Dr. Pepper , and the funding helped three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin create a race team built around the driver.
Hamlin brought in Jordan as co-owner, and 23XI Racing, despite expected growing pains in its first season, helped Wallace improve his stats across the board. He tied his career top five with three last season, led a career-high 62 laps, and finished a career-best 21st in the standings.
23XI has since expanded to two cars and added former Cup champion Kurt Busch to its lineup, and, in the new Next Gen race car, Wallace has been racy. He opened the season with a second-place finish to Austin Cindric at the Daytona 500 and was in contention to win at Atlanta Motor Speedway until a late crash dropped him to 13th.
Wallace said his accident in Atlanta was the hardest hit of his life. It retriggered shoulder pain that he had surgically repaired in the offseason, and it took about four days of rehabilitation until his whole body felt ready to race again.
But when he got back in his No. 23 Toyota, Wallace was ready to go.
It’s part of an intentional shift in attitude Wallace has made this year and applied every time he steps onto the track. Whether it’s a tire test earlier this week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, or a track where he usually struggles, Wallace’s intention is to be fully engaged with his race team.
“Since 2015, that’s when my career path changed,” Wallace said of his two-season stint driving winning trucks for Kyle Busch Motorsports chasing the Xfinity Series for the Jack Roush’s losing team.
“He had just come in and the job you did was good enough for the 15th,” he added. “So it was like ‘Well, what’s the point of trying harder?’ I feel like I’ve broken that mold now and now I’m like, ‘Hey man, if you put in that extra work, it’s definitely going to pay off.’ I’ve seen it and experienced it now and it’s the confidence booster you need.
His journey has been aided by his fiancée, Amanda, who by nature takes a more positive approach than Wallace typically does to speed bumps in her path. She’s with him at nearly every race, helped sponsor McDonald’s launch a new line of race-related streetwear alongside Wallace, and has been busy planning their New Year’s Eve wedding.
“I just signed the checks,” Wallace said, “but she’s still looking for a photographer.”
Soothing as it was for Wallace as he reached the biggest milestone of his NASCAR career, the 28-year-old can’t bring himself to give Amanda all the credit.
“She should have a lot, but we’re competitive so I won’t give her 100% because, maybe she’s 99% but she still has to work for that last bit,” he laughed. “Sometimes she (drives me really crazy) because I’m going to complain about something ‘Can you believe this happened?’ and his response will be “Well, let’s look at why it happened the way it did.”
“She always sees things in a different light and it makes you appreciate that you can see things differently from someone else’s perspective, you know? We’re definitely polar opposites, but that balances out really well. Life is good with her.
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