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BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) -- Bubba Wallace was wrecked out of the qualifying race for NASCAR’s annual All-Star event, ruining his shot of racing for the $1 million prize.
One driver advanced into the All-Star race through a fan vote and Wallace had been leading when results were last updated by NASCAR a week ago. After he crashed 17 laps into Wednesday night's qualifying race - which awarded three additional slots to stage winners into the 20-driver All-Star field - he was no longer eligible to win the fan vote.
It didn't matter, anyway. Clint Bowyer was named winner of the fan vote and NASCAR said he received the most votes even with Wallace eliminated. Aric Almirola advanced by winning the first stage, William Byron for winning the second stage and Matt DiBenedetto for winning the third stage.
Wallace had race-ending contact with the wall when his No. 43 Chevrolet appeared to be turned from behind by Michael McDowell 17 laps into the first stage. He said he didn’t need to see a replay because he knew McDowell’s contact was egregious.
“Just disrespect. When you get hooked into the wall, I don’t even need to see a replay,” Wallace said. "People say he’s one of the nicest guys in the garage. I can’t wait for the God-fearing text that he is going to send me about preaching and praise and respect. What a joke he is.”
A piece of Wallace’s crumpled sheet metal was placed on the back of McDowell’s team truck and Wallace was seen walking away.
Wallace climbed from his car and gave a thumbs-up to a contingent of fans cheering for him. Roughly two dozen organizers from Justice 4 the Next Generation traveled from Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia in an effort to diversify NASCAR.
Wallace is the only Black driver competing regularly in NASCAR's top series, and drivers rallied around him after a noose was found at his assigned stall at Talladega Superspeedway in Atlanta. Federal authorities ruled last month the noose had been hanging since October and was not a hate crime.
NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports were allowed to sell 30,000 tickets to the All-Star race, which was moved from Charlotte Motor Speedway for just the second time in the event's history. North Carolina, where the race was held at Charlotte its first year in 1985 and every year since 1987, would not authorize spectators for the race.
Bristol, dubbed “The Last Great Colosseum,” can hold about 140,000 spectators. Speedway Motorsports had those in attendance socially distanced through the grandstands and masks were only required upon entrance. Fans were told they could remove them once in their seats.
“You hate to lean on them (the fans), but it damn sure feels good to have the fans back at the track. Thank you, guys!” Bowyer said. “You want to talk about an All-Star event, this is the right track to do it.”
Because the speedway is privately owned, attendance numbers will not be released. Tickets were on sale through Tuesday evening and still available on Bristol’s website until the deadline.
IndyCar raced last weekend at Road America in Wisconsin and there was no limit on tickets sold to the event held on a 4-mile road course. Crowd estimates for that event have been around 10,000 spectators, but the NASCAR race would likely be the largest sporting event in the United States since March.
Concession stands were open, but typical shopping opportunities were limited and independent street-side souvenir stands along Speedway Boulevard hawked driver items and even a few Confederate flags.
As fans entered the speedway, a plane circled the Tennessee track pulling a banner of the Confederate flag.
NASCAR in June banned the flag at its events, but protesters at Talladega paraded past the main entrance waving them from their vehicles. A plane also flew over the speedway that day with a flag that read “Defund NASCAR,” a play on the “defund the police” slogan of some protesting racial injustice.
President Donald Trump has criticized NASCAR for banning the Confederate flag, blaming the decision for the sport’s “low ratings,” although TV ratings for NASCAR have been up since racing resumed. Trump also wrongly accused Wallace of perpetrating a “hoax” about the noose.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans of Columbia, Tennessee, claimed it had paid for the banner over Talladega. The one flying over Bristol Motor Speedway listed only the group’s website address.
Meanwhile, Martin Truex Jr. failed inspection twice and forfeited the top starting spot in the All-Star race. Truex was set to start from the pole based on a random draw. His Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota instead dropped to the back of the field at the start.
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