In front of a horde of NASCAR fans, many of whom were wearing "Black Lives Matter" and "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts, Bubba Wallace said "the sport is changing" after an emotional race Monday at Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Alabama.
Wallace, NASCAR's only Black full-time driver, was joined by all 39 other drivers and their crews in a march down pit road as they pushed his No. 43 to the front of the line in the moments before the race. The gesture came one day after a noose was found in Wallace's garage stall. When the group reached the front line Monday, Wallace climbed out of his car and wept.
If not for a shortage of fuel, Wallace might have had a chance to race for the win. A late stop for gas led to a 14th-place finish, but Monday still felt like a win for Wallace. He went to the fence and, through the wiring, slapped hands with a group of fans as they cheered.
He apologized for not wearing a mandatory mask but said he didn't put it on because "I wanted to show whoever it was: You are not going to take away my smile.''
"This sport is changing,'' he said. "The prerace deal was probably one of the hardest things I've ever had to witness in my life. From all the supporters, from drivers to crew members, everybody here, the badass fan base, thank you guys for coming out. This is truly incredible, and I'm glad to be a part of this sport.''
Ryan Blaney, who won Monday's race in a photo finish, said Wallace has been one of his best friends for 15 years, and he called the prerace show of support a special moment.
"And it showed how you're not gonna scare [Wallace]. You're not gonna scare him," Blaney told ESPN's Scott Van Pelt. "He's really strong. He's gonna rise above it and fight this.
"So we just wanted to show our support. I wanted to show my support for my best friend. He's just been someone I've really, really loved for a long time, and I'm gonna support him 100 percent along the way for many years to come. I hope a lot of people will look at that and learn from everyone coming together and supporting each other. That's what it's gonna take to make things better."
The idea for the gesture came up Monday. Jimmie Johnson said in a drivers chat that he would stand with Wallace during the national anthem. Then Kevin Harvick shared the idea that the drivers should push Wallace's car to the front.
"I'm happy to play a role in it. I want to. I know I need to," Johnson said after his 13th-place finish. "And I feel like to see the garage area stand up as they have as well in the last few weeks, and then again today, is sending a very strong message, and I'm very proud of our sport."
Standing alongside Wallace for the national anthem was Richard Petty, the 82-year-old Hall of Fame driver known as "The King.'' Wallace drives the No. 43 Chevrolet for Petty, who issued a scathing rebuke after the noose was found, calling for the "sick person'' to be expelled from NASCAR forever, a move that NASCAR president Steve Phelps insisted will happen when the person is caught.
Sources told ESPN's Marty Smith that Petty decided to travel to Talladega after the noose was found and that he said the "most important thing for me right now is hugging my driver." This marked the first race Petty had attended since the sport was shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Workers painted "#IStandWithBubbaWallace'' on the infield grass before Monday's race, which was postponed from Sunday because of inclement weather.
Two weeks ago, Wallace successfully pushed NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at its venues, though the sanctioning body has not outlined how it will enforce the restriction. Disgruntled fans with Confederate flags drove past the main entrance to the Alabama race track prior to Sunday's race, and a plane flew above the track pulling a banner of the flag that read "Defund NASCAR."
Hours after the race was postponed by rain, NASCAR said the noose had been found. The sanctioning body vowed to do everything possible to find who was responsible and "eliminate them from the sport." Wallace said in a statement Sunday that he was "incredibly saddened" by the act.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said she was "shocked and appalled'' by the "vile act'' against Wallace, an Alabama native.
"There is no place for this disgusting display of hatred in our state,'' Ivey said. "Bubba Wallace is one of us. He is a native of Mobile, and on behalf of all Alabamians, I apologize to Bubba Wallace as well as to his family and friends for the hurt this has caused and regret the mark this leaves on our state.''
Talladega County Sheriff Jimmy Kilgore said NASCAR contacted the FBI, which is handling the investigation. The FBI field office in Birmingham, Alabama, did not immediately return a message left by The Associated Press.
Officials at Sonoma Raceway in California said Monday that they are looking into what could be a similar incident after "a piece of twine tied in what appeared to be a noose" was found "hanging from a tree on raceway property" on Saturday. The track's president said the incident is under investigation by the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department.
After Monday's race at Talladega Superspeedway, Aric Almirola, who finished third, said he was speechless when he found out that a noose had been found in Wallace's garage stall.
"So you see people lash out and show signs of evil and darkness, and it just comes from a bad place," Almirola said. "And I think the most important thing you can respond with that is light and love. And showing how to stand up and how to show positivity and have a heart. And I feel like, as an industry, that's what we did today."
Former NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. took to Twitter to offer his support for Wallace in the wake of Sunday's incident.
I don't worry about our sport. I have confidence NASCAR's leadership will find who did this and continue pushing us in the right direction. I do worry about Bubba. I hope Bubba is feeling loved and supported. Keep sending him that love and support. He needs it now more than ever.— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) June 22, 2020
Lewis Hamilton, Formula One's only Black driver and its reigning champion, also offered his support via Instagram.
"It's disgusting that this is happening, stay safe and alert out there bro," Hamilton wrote. "Supporting you from afar, proud of you."
After the race Monday, Wallace said he is going to "keep on truckin'" and looks forward to racing next weekend at Pocono Raceway.
"Hey, I'm still smiling," he said. "Long week ahead of me -- probably a couple weeks, probably a couple months. ... So I'll be ready for Pocono."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.