CONCORD – You almost had to be a curmudgeon to cheer against Kyle Larson last Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Here was a guy who started out only hoping to run in the All-Star Race later that night, battled his way into it by winning the final stage of the Monster Energy Open qualifying race and then, only minutes after winning a million bucks, said his greatest joy of the day was seeing his little boy play a T-ball game that morning.
But there I was standing along pit road in the last part of the All-Star Race, wishing Larson’s 42 car would somehow slow down long enough for the 43 driven by Bubba Wallace to overtake him – and the field – to earn a trip to Victory Lane.
No, it wouldn’t have allowed Wallace to move up from his lowly 29th spot in the points standings. And the $1 million purse might not have put a dent into the money problems his Richard Petty Motorsports team is reportedly having.
But I know what it would’ve personally meant for Bubba, a 25-year-old Northwest Cabarrus High School graduate who’s become beloved throughout NASCAR for opening his heart while his team goes through tough times.
And I got a sense for what was truly inside that heart shortly before the All-Star Race.
It was both painful and illuminating.
Like Larson, Wallace didn’t have an All-Star spot secured Saturday, either. His only hope was to win one of the stages of the Open and get an automatic bid, otherwise it would’ve been another disappointing day at the track.
He nearly got that coveted spot in the All-Star field in Stage 1 of the Open, but he was bumped out of contention just before the finish – it was just some good racin’ – and still didn’t know how his night would end.
In Stage 2, though, he wouldn’t be denied. With a late push, he crossed first and earned his place. It was a thing of beauty, quite honestly – some good racin’, just like before. But when Wallace spoke to reporters after he’d qualified, the story of “Local Boy Makes Good” was tinged with sadness.
Wallace was asked if making the biggest race of the night was an example that he still has what it takes to do well in this series.
“I’ve been doubting it for years, honestly,” Wallace said. “It’s been tough to climb back in each and every week telling yourself you suck.”
And there it was.
On arguably the biggest night of his Cup career, standing in his adopted home track with fans and RPM team members celebrating him, the Alabama-born Wallace spoke of heartbreak.
“My mental game is really shot right now, but, man, it feels good to win something,” he said. “I’ve failed at a lot of things in life recently, and I’m working to make those things better. So we’ll see what we can get (in the All-Star Race).”
His words were a continuation of what he said the previous week in Kansas, when he admitted to the Associated Press that he’d been struggling with anxiety and depression for a long time now.
Earlier that week, he tweeted that he hasn’t “been in a good place for some time now.” He also told media in Kansas, “I’m on the verge of breaking down, and I am what I am.”
This is why I wanted so badly for Wallace to get the win last Saturday. I wanted those feelings of heartache and doubt to be washed away in Coca-Cola, one of his sponsors, while standing in Victory Lane.
And understand: This is not pity for Bubba Wallace.
This is respect.
In the world of professional sports, we often have unrealistic expectations for the competitors. We don’t just expect them to be superstars; we expect them to be superhuman. And there’s no sport in which that expectation is greater than NASCAR, where people who sit in 3,400 pounds of steel going 180 mph bumper-to-bumper indeed have to be, well, a little different.
We see race car drivers as invincible, above emotions such as fear and agony. But they’re subject to the same misgivings most of us experience every day. They just don’t often share it with us.
And sometimes I understand why athletes refuse to show their personal feelings, as many people went to social media a few weeks ago and made jokes about NBA star Joel Embiid crying after his Philadelphia 76ers lost at the buzzer in the playoffs. It was ridiculous.
Wallace has showed bravery by sharing his personal journey over the past few weeks.
He’s been vulnerable. And last Saturday, he was damn good. It was a much-needed evening for a guy whose best finish this season is 17th at Martinsville and amid open questions about his worthiness to be in a Cup car.
Wallace finished fifth in the big race Saturday night, but I’m hoping the overall strong day will propel him as he finishes out this season, starting with the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway Sunday evening.
Even more, I’m hoping that it helps him resurrect his greatness, both as a man and a driver.
Because that’s what he is.
Wallace has defeated the odds – he’s one of the few people in this world to earn a Cup ride. And, yes, he’s an African-American man who’s very much a superhero for little boys and girls – of all backgrounds – who aspire to get to the same place he is.
Not that the knowledge of those things will make Wallace feel better.
Depression isn’t something that just goes away. It’s there. I know this because someone so very close to my heart suffers from it every day. It can be frustrating, paralyzing.
But like the tens of millions of other people who deal with the disease, Wallace showed there can be good moments, even when you’re feeling your lowest.
“I’m still telling myself that I’m not good enough,” Wallace said before going to hop in his Chevrolet for the All-Star Race. “But I’m about to go fight for a million dollars, so we’re good.”
So on Sunday, I’ll be at CMS again, quietly hoping to see Wallace build off that fifth-place finish, wanting to see him win the sport’s longest race.
Because I know a night like that will definitely help him win the race of his life.