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NASCAR fans should be rooting for Bubba Wallace to win Daytona 500 | Commentary

There is a simple one-word answer for the lingering question of how NASCAR can expedite the process to regain the popularity that it once had:

Bubba.

That’s the answer:

Bubba.

Bubba Wallace.

Oh sure, there are a lot of other good storylines heading into Sunday’s (or Monday’s) Daytona 500. No doubt, it would be awesome to see Kyle Busch, one of NASCAR’s greatest all-time drivers, finally win the 500 after 19 tries. The same can be said for future Hall-of-Famers Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr., who have combined to start 35 Daytona 500s without ever winning.

And, yes, it would be a great day for NASCAR fans if Chase Elliott, who is perennially NASCAR’s most popular driver, were to win the Great American Race.

But if Bubba were to win NASCAR’s Super Bowl … ohmygawd! It would transcend the niche sport of NASCAR and turn it into a groundbreaking and earth-shaking international story.

That’s why I’m rooting for Bubba on Sunday.

Because I want NASCAR to get out of its funk.

I want the Daytona 500 TV ratings to stop going down year after year.

I want NASCAR to stop the bleeding and hold off hard-charging Formula 1 to remain the most popular racing circuit in this country.

It’s going to take more than NASCAR copying Formula 1 and having its own docuseries — Full Speed — on Netflix. And it’s going to take more than a great crop of good young drivers who are active on social media.

It’s going to take a driver who captures and captivates America’s attention.

It’s going to take Bubba.

He’s charismatic, controversial, candid, quotable, confrontational, quick-witted, opinionated, engaging, emotional, sarcastic, funny, angry … and different.

It’s no secret he’s the only Black driver in the Cup series and brings a diversity to the sport that NASCAR has been working toward for decades. He has been outspoken about the sport’s racist past and — despite former president Donald Trump’s protests — was instrumental in NASCAR finally banning Confederate flags from being displayed at its tracks.

For the longest time, Bubba had the following message pinned to the top of his social media accounts:

“There is only 1 driver from an African American background at the top level of our sport. I am the 1. You’re not going to stop hearing about ‘the black driver’ for years. Embrace it, accept it and enjoy the journey.”

I’ve written it before and I’ll write it again: If Bubba Wallace could become a champion while driving for a 23XI race team co-owned by the iconic Michael Jordan, it would be the biggest thing to hit NASCAR since MAGA hats, camo beer huggies and deer antler bottle openers.

I know, I know, I used to say the same thing about Danica Patrick — except Danica never, ever proved she could drive a stock car. She was on the Cup circuit for seven years and never won a race or never even finished in the top 5.

Bubba is entering his seventh full-time season in the Cup Series and made the playoffs for the first time last season, finishing 10th in the final standings. Even so, Wallace was not happy at the end of the season despite his best finish and despite one of his closest friends, Ryan Blaney, winning his first Cup championship.

On the night of the final race of last season, Wallace was in a state of depression and posted a cryptic, emotional message on social media entitled “Life” in which he explained how he was sitting at home alone, staring at the walls and contemplating his future.

“Sitting here on the couch questioning everything,” he posted. “You would think your bud [Blaney] winning the championship would bring that joy and excitement back. Sadly it did not. It’s the helpless feeling that really kicks ya. My wife [Amanda] can see that I’m off but I don’t have the what or the why that I’m feeling this way to allow her to help me.

“To my peeps out there staring at a blank wall, I’m with you. Tomorrow is another day. Another opportunity. Keep after it.”

He ended his personal revelation with a lyric from rapper Kendrick Lamar:

“We gon be alright.”

Let’s hope so because this is obviously a big season for Bubba in that he needs to prove that last year’s playoff run wasn’t a fluke. This is a season in which he must take the next step and not only make the playoffs again but be a serious championship contender.

If that happens, watch out.

NASCAR will become a sport that Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless will start talking about on ESPN and Fox Sports. NASCAR will become a topic on PTI and Around the Horn. Who knows, the sport might become so popular that Taylor Swift might even start dating a NASCAR driver.

“I have the confidence, and the awareness of where I’m at in the sport,” Wallace said earlier this week. “I have a new appreciation and different mindset going into this year. I’m racing for something totally different.”

He’s not just racing for a championship, he’s blazing trails for his entire sport.

The more he wins, the more we watch.

The more he wins, the more we talk.

The more he wins, the more we care.

The more he wins, the more NASCAR thrives.

Let’s go, Bubba.

Email me at mbianchi@orlandosentinel.com. Hit me up on X (formerly Twitter) @BianchiWrites and listen to my Open Mike radio show every weekday from 6 to 9:30 a.m. on FM 96.9, AM 740 and 969TheGame.com/listen