Ryan Blaney was victorious in the Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, but NASCAR won the day.
In a race that was delayed a day by rain, then overshadowed by a heinous hate crime—with some vile individual hanging a noose in the garage stall of Bubba Wallace—the Cup community rallied around the only Black American driver in the sport on Monday.
Prior to the race, NASCAR President Steve Phelps addressed Sunday’s incident and confirmed that the Birmingham office of the FBI was already on site conducting an investigation.
“As we have stated unequivocally, there is no place for racism in NASCAR,” Phelps said. “This act only strengthens our resolve to make this sport open and welcoming to all.”
A group text to the drivers from seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, expressing his desire to stand with Wallace during pre-race activities, sparked a plan by Kevin Harvick. Before the cars rolled off of pit road, the drivers surrounded the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet. Petty, who flew in to support his driver, accompanied the other competitors as they pushed Wallace down pit road.
Blaney was the first of a handful of drivers to hug Wallace before he strapped in.
"What happened yesterday was disgusting," said Blaney after his first win of the season and the fourth of his career. "I don't understand how a person or people can have that hatred in their heart for someone who just looks different than they do. Never something I'll understand.
"It almost brought me to tears when Bubba told me yesterday what happened. He doesn't deserve that. No one deserves that."
Among the 5,000 fans who were allowed to attend the event, many cheered for Wallace as the cars completed warm-up laps. Spotter Freddie Craft told Wallace, “Let’s shut these haters up. Let’s go to work.”
Martin Truex Jr. led the field to green, and the point changed hands four times between Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano prior to the first competition caution at Lap 25. Rain once again stalled the progression of the race after 57 laps. Rookie Tyler Reddick scored his first stage win as the segment ended under yellow on Lap 60.
The race returned to green on Lap 65, with Alex Bowman taking control. The second stage was slowed by two cautions—John Hunter Nemechek’s spin on Lap 95 and debris on the backstretch 20 laps later. Thirty-eight of the 56 lead changes occurred in the first 120 laps, with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. taking the point and winning stage as weather threatened once again.
Three cautions slowed the final segment of the race. While drafting, Brad Keselowski nudged Chase Elliott into a spin on Lap 134 and Elliott collected Austin Dillon in the process. Brennan Poole went into the spin cycle following contact with Joey Gase on Lap 142. During stops for service, Kyle Busch received damage on pit road after contact with Quinn Houff. When the race restarted on Lap 146, race leader Christopher Bell pushed Erik Jones below the yellow line and was forced to pit with a penalty.
As the drivers were setting up for the end game, William Byron was pushed from the lead by Joey Logano on Lap 160. As the No. 24 dropped down the sucker hole, Wallace took the lead—but it was short-lived. Still, he felt the presence of the fans. After finishing 14th, Wallace walked over to the front stretch to thank spectators sporting “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts.
“The sport is changing,” Wallace said, as he walked back down the track. “The deal that happened yesterday…I wanted to show whoever it was that you’re not going to take away my smile. I’m going to keep on going. I’ve been a part of this sport for a really long time…
“All in all, we won today. The pre-race deal was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to witness in my life, from all the supporters, from drivers and crew members and everybody here. It’s truly incredible, and I’m proud to be a part of this sport.”
Logano returned to the lead with a push by Kevin Harvick but was shuffled out. He dropped to third behind Johnson but on Lap 185 the two collided with three laps remaining in the contest. Fuel was becoming an issue for most of the leaders, but Harvick remaining on the track with Blaney, as the race went into overtime.
“We were riding there,” said Blaney, who scored his second Talladega win in as many races. “We came back in and topped off and we were just riding around until maybe 12 to go. I was waiting for Kevin to kind of go, but he had to save more than I did, so we just kind of had to get going.
“You’re just biding your time and hoping you saved enough. There’s enough information in there nowadays where you do save enough, but it was a lot of fun.”
Although Harvick had a push from Chris Buescher, Blaney’s assist from Stenhouse enabled the two drivers to break away. While Stenhouse made a final attempt at the No. 12 Team Penske Ford, Blaney held on to a .007-second lead at the finish.
“Yeah, we were so close there at the end,” Stenhouse said. “It was hard all day trying to break up the Penske cars and then there at the end, all the blue ovals were together. But, our No. 47 NOS Energy Drink Camaro ZL1 1LE was really fast all day. The boys brought a good one. I thought we had a shot there at the end, it just didn’t work out.
“All-in-all, a solid day. Really cool to see all the support of the fans that are here for Bubba. That was a really special moment at the beginning of the race. We came up one spot short. We’ll go get them next week.”
Despite sustaining damage on the final lap, Aric Almirola ran third for his eighth straight top 10 at Talladega. Jones, Buescher, Bowman, Nemechek, Kurt Busch and Harvick rounded out the top 10.
After the race, Almirola reflected on the opportunities afforded him through the NASCAR diversity program.
"The sport has worked so hard since I got my opportunity in 2004 to adapt," said the Cuban American racer. "Forever, NASCAR has been considered an All‑American sport. All of America has changed and evolved a lot over time. I think that NASCAR has done an incredible job of being inclusive and making sure that the garage area, the spectators, the fan area, that they all resemble all of America.
"I have been so proud to be a part of that initiative and that drive. I am making this very clear, this is not about me. I'm just saying I have had a firsthand look at it from the very beginning when NASCAR started the whole diversity program and the Drive for Diversity. I have gotten so much opportunity because of that. I am so grateful and thankful. They continue to adapt and evolve and make our sport a more inclusive sport where people can feel welcome.
"If you like racecars, fast racecars, the adrenaline rush of cars going 200 miles an hour side‑by‑side like you saw today, you should be able to come and be a part of it whether as a competitor or spectator and participate and enjoy it.
Before heading for the exit, Wallace joined Blaney to celebrate the win. The drivers, who grew up racing together as teenagers, displayed the strength of their bond on Monday.
"The start of the day, all the drivers on pit road pushing Bubba's car, showing their support, it was just an honor to be a part of that," Blaney said. "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.
"But I think the good thing is us as a community came together, showed our support. I know he really appreciated it. It was the least we can do to show we're behind him 100 percent. I'm obviously going to be behind him 100 percent. I have been for 15 years, I hope to make it 50 more years supporting him every step along the way. That was definitely a special moment to be a part of before the race."