Talladega, Ala. – Bubba Wallace still has a voice message Michael Jordan left him after Wallace’s first Cup Series win. His winning Toyota is currently inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, but will eventually be showcased.
Wallace’s rain-slashed win at Talladega Superspeedway last October was a career success and now Wallace wants more. He returns to Talladega for Sunday’s race as a legitimate threat, but the task facing 23XI Racing is competing at every track on the NASCAR schedule.
“The opportunity to go out and win any race is enormous. There’s a lot more races than Talladega and Daytona that we can look forward to,” Wallace said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We have races that we look forward to all year, and it’s different from previous years. … Just showing up and knowing you have an opportunity automatically changes your mind tenfold. “
It’s the kick in the firesuit that Wallace needed in his fifth full season at NASCAR’s premier level. In three seasons driving for Richard Petty Motorsports, Wallace accumulated only three top-five finishes and 34 laps leading over 108 races.
But his life changed in 2020 when Wallace, the only black driver in the Cup Series, took a public stance on social and racial justice. His position was exacerbated as NASCAR was one of the only major sports to compete in the early months of the pandemic and companies took notice: Wallace replaced DoorDash, Columbia Sportswear and Dr. The paper pulled in a number of new-to-NASCAR sponsors, and the funding helped three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin start a race team built around the driver.
Hamlin joined Jordan as co-owner, and 23XI Racing helped Wallace improve his stats across the board, despite the growing pains expected in his first season. He tied the top-five finishes of his career with the previous three seasons, led a career-high 62 laps and finished a career-best 21st in the standings.
The 23XI has since expanded to two cars and added former Cup champion Kurt Busch to its lineup, and, in the new Next Gen racecar, Wallace has been furious. He began the season as a runner-up to Austin Sindrick at the Daytona 500 and was in contention to win at Atlanta Motor Speedway until a late accident dropped him to 13th place.
Wallace said his accident in Atlanta was the hardest hit of his life. This re-triggered pain in the shoulder, which he had surgically corrected during the off-season, and took about four days of rehabilitation until his entire body was ready to run again.
But when he got back to his No. 23 Toyota, Wallace was ready to go.
It’s part of a deliberate change in attitude that Wallace has made this year and is implemented every time he appears on the track. Be it a tire test at Charlotte Motor Speedway earlier this week, or a track where he usually struggles, Wallace intends to fully engage with his race team.
“Since 2015, that’s when my career changed course,” Wallace said of his move from two seasons driving trucks for Kyle Busch Motorsports to slugging in the Xfinity Series for Jack Rausch’s slumping team.
“It was just showing up and the work you did was good enough for the 15th,” he said. “So it was like ‘Okay, what’s the point of trying more?’ I think 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 I just lived it and that’s the confidence booster you need.”
His journey is aided by his fiancée, Amanda, who by nature takes a more positive attitude than Wallace, who usually tends to standoff his way. She accompanies him almost every race, was part of sponsor McDonald’s with Wallace’s launch of a new line of racing-related streetwear, and has been busy planning her New Year’s Eve wedding.
“I just sign the check,” Wallace said, “but he’s still looking for a photographer.”
While calm for Wallace has taken the biggest step of his NASCAR career, the 28-year-old can’t bring himself to give all the credit to Amanda.
“He should get a lot, but we are competitive so I won’t give him 100% because maybe he’s at 99%, but he still has to work for that last one,” he laughed. “Sometimes she really (drives me crazy) because I’m ranting about something like ‘Can you believe this happened?’ And his response would be ‘Okay, let’s see why this happened.’
“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 it really I am well balanced. Life is good with him.”
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