All-Star Race leaves Bubba Wallace with a big smile

Dustin Long
NBC Sports

CONCORD, N.C. — It was a smile that wasn’t forced, a smile that didn’t deflect, and a smile that was not laced with hidden meanings.

This was genuine, perhaps a little forgotten, but oh so nice.

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“I honestly haven’t had this much fun in a long time,” Wallace said after a night that saw him win a stage in the Monster Open to advance to the All-Star race and then finish fifth in that event.

It has been a long time since Wallace could feel so good. He noted last week that he had been depressed about things in his life. Results on the track also had not been inspiring.

Asked earlier this season at Auto Club Speedway what his team was lacking, Wallace said: “Money. It’s where we’re lacking. We need money to make more speed.”

He has not finished better than 17th in a points race this season. He has one top-10 results in his last 41 points races. That runner-up finish for the Richard Petty Motorsports driver in the 2018 Daytona 500 – and the tearful hug with his mother – seems so long ago. 

All of that can make it hard to smile.

That’s why Saturday meant so much to Wallace. He won (the second stage in the Monster Open), earning a hug from Ryan Blaney in the garage. Wallace then finished close enough to the front in the All-Star Race that he could see the leaders.

Yet, this night started with the same cruelty that has struck him so often on the track. Wallace was in the lead on the final lap of the opening stage of the Monster Open but William Byron nipped Wallace by inches at the line.

Wallace yelled an adult word repeatedly on the radio to express his frustration.

“Ever since I was a kid, they said I drive better when I’m pissed off,” Wallace said. “I was pissed off. I was really off after that. I let that one go. I thought that was it. Then the caution came out (in the second stage) and the same scenario.”

Another overtime finish.

“I’m not giving it up this time,” Wallace said. “So you’ve got to do what you’ve got do.”

This time Wallace raced Daniel Suarez on the last lap of the stage for the win. They made contact. Suarez spun and Wallace won to earn a spot in his first All-Star Race.

Wallace ran toward the back of the 19-car field in the first two stages. He moved into the top 10 in the third stage, finishing sixth.

He started outside the top 10 in the final 15-lap stage but was ninth in a couple of laps. Wallace moved up as others pitted with 12 laps to go and climbed up to fourth after a restart. Joey Logano passed Wallace with four laps to go, dropping Wallace to fifth. He held off Aric Almirola to finish there.

How much did that all that mean for him?

“I’m showing teeth in my smile,” Wallace said. “So that says a lot.”

Yes, it did.

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