NASCAR race begins after show of support for Bubba Wallace

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TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. edged Ryan Blaney to win the second stage of a rain-delayed race at Talladega Superspeedway that began with NASCAR drivers throwing their support behind Bubba Wallace.

Stenhouse and Blaney dueled to the finish, with Blaney taking the lead late with a nifty save after his rear end appeared to start a slide, with a helpful push from Penske Ford teammate Brad Keselowski. But it was Stenhouse nipping him to end the stage before a mostly empty venue.

The racing was overshadowed by an extraordinary act of solidarity with NASCAR’s only Black driver. Dozens of drivers pushed the car belonging to Wallace to the front of the field before Monday’s race as FBI agents tried to find out who left a noose in his garage stall over the weekend.

The stock car series was left reeling and angered by the racist act that came less than two weeks after it banned the Confederate flag on its properties at Wallace’s urging. It has vowed to permanently bar the person responsible, but the investigation was in its early stages.

The 26-year-old Wallace was surrounded by all 39 other drivers in the moments before the race and they were joined by their crews in a march down pit road as they pushed his No. 43 to the front of the line. Wallace climbed out of his car and wept.

It was a stirring move to support Wallace at a track in the heart of the South where Confederate flags have flown for decades and were seen outside the superspeedway all weekend long by fans opposed to NASCAR’s ban.

Standing alongside Wallace for the national anthem was Richard Petty, the 82-year-old Hall of Fame driver known as “The King.” Wallace drives for Petty, who issued a scathing rebuke after the noose was found that called for the “sick person” to be expelled from NASCAR forever – a move NASCAR President Steve Phelps insisted would happen should they be caught.

The race began with Martin Truex Jr. on the pole, and Tyler Reddick won the first stage, which ended in a weather caution that lasted 58-plus minutes.

The crowd had dwindled significantly from Sunday, when up to 5,000 fans were allowed into Talladega – only the second race with fans since NASCAR returned from the pandemic-forced shutdown. Workers painted “#IStandWithBubbaWallace” on the infield grass before the race and Confederate flags were nowhere to be seen inside the sprawling facility that can hold 80,000-plus and usually sees dozens of RVs lined up across the infield.

In the stands, fan Luke Johnson said he is against the flag ban, saying: “All the NASCAR tracks need to keep on flying them.”

As for the noose left for Wallace, he said: “I thought it was funny myself.”

Another fan, Robert Chaisson, said he didn’t have a strong opinion on the ban. He certainly did on what happened to Wallace.

“That was messed up. I hope they charge that guy with a hate crime,” Chaisson, who lives in Alabaster, Alabama, said. “It doesn’t matter what your opinion is, it’s when you cross that line, then your opinion no longer matters. That’s trying to inflict harm on someone else.”

Driver Bubba Wallace takes a selfie with himself and other drivers that pushed his car to the front in the pits of the Talladega Superspeedway prior to the start of the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at the Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega Ala., Monday June 22, 2020. In an extraordinary act of solidarity with NASCAR’s only Black driver, dozens of drivers pushed the car belonging to Bubba Wallace to the front of the field before Monday’s race as FBI agents nearby tried to find out who left a noose in his garage stall over the weekend. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
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