CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Bubba Wallace deserves a spot in NASCAR's All-Star race, a $1 million exhibition designed for race winners and previous champions of the event.
Wallace doesn't qualify under those conditions, though he has four chances to make the 20-driver field Wednesday night at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee. There are 22 drivers entered in the “open” event in which the winners of each of the three stages earn an automatic berth into the show.
The fourth slot goes to the winner of a fan vote and Wallace was leading that poll when results were last updated a week ago. Voting closes Tuesday.
Plenty will argue that an all-star race is for the very best in the sport and Wallace needs to earn his way in on the racetrack. He and his Richard Petty Motorsports team will certainly try that route but the competition is steep: Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Chris Buescher, Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — all previous race winners driving for larger teams than RPM — are among those Wallace must beat for an automatic berth.
That doesn't mean Wallace doesn't have a chance to race his way into the main event, which he did last year. Overlooked in a season in which he has dominated off-track news, Wallace and the No. 43 team have been much improved.
Through 17 races, Wallace has already equaled his career best with three top-10 finishes. He is 19th in the Cup Series standings, only 60 points outside the bubble to qualify for the playoffs.
Those stats are not that impressive. But it is important to recognize RPM is a single-car team lacking the heavy sponsorship money required to compete with NASCAR's elite organizations. An alliance with Richard Childress Racing helps, but the finances are not there for Wallace to contend for wins each week.
Money equals speed in racing, whether its new parts, more people or the ability to spend time on research and development. RPM gets by with what it can afford and recognizes its shortcomings. Wallace had a decent run at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May but contact caused him to break a wheel hub.
When the team told him what the issue was over the radio, a despondent Wallace replied he wasn't going to stay on the track when the team can't even afford new wheel hubs. “Bring it to the garage,” he was told.
So apply perspective to Wallace's results. His ninth-place finish two weekends ago at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was better than former champions Joey Logano, Kurt Busch and former Brickyard winner Ryan Newman. And for an RPM team that hasn't won a race since 2014 when Aric Almirola won a rain-shortened race at Daytona. So a top-10 finish at Indy is pretty close to a moral and emotional victory.
Statistics aside, the strain Wallace and his team have been under the last two months is enormous. Wallace is the only Black driver at NASCAR's top level and for that reason alone he has been forced to speak out as the country is pushing for racial equality.
He has been at the forefront of NASCAR's racial reckoning and became the face of the movement when he successfully called on series leadership to ban the Confederate flag at NASCAR events. What followed has been a blinding spotlight.
The 26-year-old Wallace has tried to navigate his new role as a spokesman, a leader — a position he never before had as a mid-pack racer — and soon enough he was receiving death threats, scorn and mockery from the public. When NASCAR said a noose had been in Wallace's garage stall at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway, the intensity only escalated when federal authorities determined the noose had been hanging in the garage stall since last October and thus Wallace could not have been the target of a hate crime.
Although Wallace never saw the noose, never reported it and learned of it from NASCAR, conspiracy theorists have been in full attack mode. President Donald Trump tweeted that Wallace owed his fellow competitors an apology, wrongly stating it had been a hoax, and the White House likened the situation to the case of actor Jussie Smollett.
The pressure has been enormous on Wallace, who somehow has weathered it all with grace while presenting himself as a strong representative of NASCAR. His performance has not suffered and his team has not given up on its driver or its quest to improve.
That alone makes Wallace a worthy candidate for the All-Star race, whether he earns his way in on the track or the fans — existing ones or the new ones drawn to the sport specifically by Wallace — make him the popular choice.