(Reuters) - Ryan Blaney claimed a wild last lap victory at the rain-delayed Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on Monday, in a race run under a cloud of racism and tight-security after a noose was discovered in the garage of Bubba Wallace.
With cars wrecking behind him and others banging and slamming down the home stretch Blaney held his nerve to take his fourth career victory in a photo-finish ahead of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., while Aric Almirola spun across the finish line in third.
But even all the action on the track could not pry the spotlight away from Wallace, the only Black driver in NASCAR’s top series, who came home 14th but still declared victory after two days of racial turmoil that rocked the sport.
“Sorry I’m not wearing my mask but I wanted to show whoever it was that (placed the noose in his garage) you are not going to take away my smile,” Wallace, told a trackside reporter after walking over to the fence to salute a few of the 5,000 spectators, some wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts, allowed into the race. “I am going to keep on going.
“I know I should’ve won that damn race but we ran out of gas. Just the stars didn’t align for us completely but all in all we won today.”
The race was overshadowed by events on Sunday when a noose, a symbol connected to lynching and America’s slave history, was found in Wallace’s team stall.
A vocal supporter of Black Lives Matter and one of the loudest voices pushing NASCAR’s decision earlier this month to ban the Confederate flag from its tracks, Wallace had become the target of those resisting change.
NASCAR immediately condemned the act and announced an investigation, while the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Northern District of Alabama said the FBI was reviewing the situation to determine whether there are violations of federal law.
Security at the sprawling superspeedway was stepped up on Monday and Wallace’s Richard Petty Motorsports team allowed to inspect his number 43 Chevrolet to ensure it had not been tampered with.
In a moving show of support Wallace’s fellow drivers and their crews marshalled behind the 26-year-old and helped push his car to the front of pit road for the anthems and ceremonies prior to the start of the 500 mile race.
For a moment an emotional Wallace leaned against the side of his car with his head buried in his folded arms before being hugged by the team’s legendary 82-year-old owner “The King” Richard Petty, who made the trip to the track to support his driver despite the threat of the novel coronavirus.
“The pre-race deal was probably one of the hardest things I have ever had to witness,” said Wallace, fighting to maintain composure. “From all of the supporters from drivers, from crew members, everybody here, the bad ass fan base thank you guys for coming out.
“It was truly incredible and I am proud to be a part of this sport.”
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto, additional reporting Frank Pingue. Editing by Richard Pullin