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Bubba Wallace’s one-race suspension another lesson in a season full of them — Andscape

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All in all, Bubba Wallace’s 2022 NASCAR season was winding down pretty well before his suspension Tuesday.

In July, he drove his #23 McDonald’s Toyota Camry around Chicago to promote NASCAR’s inaugural street race there next summer. In August, he signed a multiyear contract extension with 23XI Racing, which is co-owned by NBA legend Michael Jordan and fellow driver Denny Hamlin. In September, Wallace earned his second career victory in the Cup Series, making him the first Black driver to win multiple Cup races.

He has five top 5 finishes this year, compared with six in his Cup career entering the season. His top 10 finishes have tripled from last year to this year (nine). He even won his first career pole position, clocking a lap of 190.703 mph at Michigan International Speedway in August. “About time,” he told NBC Sports. “Took me five years to get my first pole.”

But how many years before Wallace is just another driver? Perhaps never. Sunday’s conduct won’t help, making him just the fourth driver in 11 years who NASCAR suspended for an on-track incident.

“23XI is aligned with NASCAR on the one-race suspension issued to Bubba, and we understand the need for the series to take a clear stand on the incidents that took place at Las Vegas Motor Speedway,” the team said in a statement Tuesday. “Bubba’s actions are not in keeping with the values of our team and partners. We have spoken to Bubba and expressed our disapproval of how he handled the situation.”

Wallace already stands out, for obvious reasons, as the Cup’s only full-time Black driver. His celebrity and sponsor far outstrip other drivers whose career average finish is closer to the back than up front. The national platform grew massively in summer 2020, supersizing all the bad and ugly headed his way.

Anything good is lost at this moment, obscured by viral videos of him trying to fight NASCAR Cup driver Kyle Larson.

Physical altercations in NASCAR can be much worse. Xfinity drivers Ty Gibbs and Sam Mayer traded punches on pit road after a race in April. Multiple media outlets have ranked the “Greatest NASCAR Fights” and fisticuffs at the 1979 Daytona 500 are a historical highlight. What ensued Sunday was a one-sided affair that Larson wanted no parts of. He turned away and tried to passively retreat as Wallace pushed him several times, hard, with both hands.

But Wallace was suspended for driving, not “fighting.” After Larson nudged him into the wall Sunday during the South Point 400, Wallace veered left and seemingly clipped Larson from behind deliberately. Their cars spun out and wrecked, ending the race for both men. That’s when Wallace went after Larson, offering an apology on Monday.

“I want to apologize for my actions on Sunday following the on-track incident with Kyle Larson and the No. 5 car,” Wallace posted on social media. “My behavior does not align with the core values that are shared by 23XI Racing and our partners, who have played a crucial role in my incredible journey to the top of this great sport.”

He notably didn’t apologize to Larson or offer regrets for wiping him out, the greater offense.

“When we look at how that incident occurred in our minds, [it was] really a dangerous act that we thought was intentional and put other competitors at risk,” NASCAR chief operating officer Steve O’Donnell said on SiriusXM Radio. “As we look at the sport and where we are today and where we want to draw that line going forward, we thought that definitely crossed the line, and that’s what we focused on in terms of making this call.”

NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace (right) shoves driver Kyle Larson (left) after they wrecked during the NASCAR Cup series playoff South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Larry Placido/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

NASCAR drivers have a history of sometimes seeking revenge on the track when they believe a competitor has wronged them. Season-long storylines can revolve around who owes who and who’s keeping score, for retribution in the future or in the same race.

Larson figured he had something coming.

“I knew he was going to retaliate,” Larson told NBC Sports. “He had a reason to be mad. But his race wasn’t over until he retaliated.”

Everyone in the broadcast booth suggested Wallace intentionally ran into Larson, a sentiment echoed around the track and throughout social media. Driver Joey Logano said Wallace could’ve killed Larson based on where the crash occurred.

“Retaliation is not OK in the way it happened,” Logano said Tuesday on SiriusXM. “If he spun him to the infield, maybe it’s a little better. But right-rear hooking someone in the dogleg is not OK … I don’t like using cars for a weapon. Just get out and fight him. That’s fine if that’s what you really want to do and that’s how you want to handle it.”

For his part, Wallace said contact with the wall damaged his car and reduced his ability to control it.

“We know how easily these cars break,” he told NBC Sports in a postrace interview. “When you get shoved into the fence deliberately like he did, trying to force me to [slow down], the steering was gone. He just so happened to be there.”

His defense was less than fully convincing, and NBC seemed to poke holes with on-screen telemetry. A graphic suggests that Wallace was full throttle when hitting Larson, inexplicable driving if steering was compromised. Wallace’s move could qualify as heat-of-the-moment frustration, which Larson understands.

In April 2020, Larson was suspended six months by NASCAR and fired by Chip Ganassi Racing for an off-the-track transgression, using the N-word during an online racing event. “I was just ignorant and immature,” he told the Associated Press then. “I didn’t understand the negativity and hurt that comes with that word.”

But the driver, who is of Asian descent and Wallace’s fellow alum in the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Program, has also been guilty of seeking payback during races.

“Hey, we’ve all done it,” Larson told reporters after Sunday’s dustup. “Maybe not all of us, but I have. I’ve let the emotions get the best of me before, too. I’m sure he’s still upset, but I’m sure with everything going on, he’ll know he made a mistake in the retaliation part, and I’m sure he’ll think twice about it next time.”

That’s a good bet. Wallace has embraced growing and developing as his star rises. He openly says that controlling his emotions has been a struggle at times, providing fodder for his detractors. Among Twitter posts about NASCAR drivers between Feb. 1 and Aug. 31, Wallace led the way with 30.8% of those posts containing “negative sentiment.”

Those detractors flood the comments with negativity at every mention, convinced that Wallace is a driver who benefits from affirmative action, helped ban the Confederate flag from races and falsely claimed a noose was placed in his garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway in 2020. (The FBI determined that the door pull was fashioned as a noose and concluded it wasn’t a hate crime because the rope preceded Wallace’s arrival. NASCAR checked more than 1,600 garage stalls during its investigation and found no other garage pull was tied as a noose.)

Earlier this year, Wallace made headlines for being visibly distressed after a second-place finish and cursing at his crew chief during another race.

“I compete with immense passion, and with passion at times comes frustration,” he said in Monday’s apology. “Upon reflecting, I should have represented our partners and core team values better than I did by letting my frustrations follow me outside of the car.

“You live and you learn, and I intend to learn from this.”

He can stack it next to other lessons in his best season yet, even if he never lives down this suspension. Especially if data eventually reveals that his steering was fine on Sunday.

Deron Snyder, an award-winning columnist from Brooklyn and an Alpha from HU-You Know, is ALWAYS ready to dance when the beat drops. But truth be told, he don’t need no music.





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