MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Martin Truex Jr. drove the stretch and won his first NASCAR Cup race of the season in the first race under the lights at Martinsville Speedway on Wednesday evening.
Truex, the 2017 Cup champion, has been one of NASCAR’s biggest winners for the past three years, but failed to find the victory track for Joe Gibbs Racing in the first 10 races of this season.
Tap tock. Time was running out of streak loss.
Truex won Martinsville’s grandfather clock on the paper clip-shaped track at just 0.526 miles. He won for the first time with new crew chief Jason Small.
“I knew we were going to have one soon,” Truex said. “Hopefully we can get started.”
Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, who has two wins this season, and Joey Logano provided a 2-3-4 finish for Team Penske.
The race started shortly after NASCAR issued a Southern Flag ban, stating “it will be banned for all NASCAR events and properties.”
The issue was brought to attention this week by Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s lonely black driver and an Alabama native who called for the Southern flag to be exiled and said there was “no place” in the sport. Wallace drove the Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43 Chevrolet with a # BlackLivesMatter livery. Dressed in an American-flagged mask, Wallace clapped his hands when asked about the decision before the start of the race.
“It has been a stressful few weeks,” Wallace said of FS1. “This is undoubtedly the biggest race of my career tonight. I’m looking forward to it tonight. There are many emotions on the track. “
Wallace wore a black ‘I Can’t Breathe’ T-shirt, but did not kneel during the national anthem. His Chevy had “Compassion, Love, Understanding” on the hood. He finished 11th in Martinsville.
The 26-year-old Wallace, who finished second in the 2018 Daytona 500, also had a dose of renewed fame. Already outspoken about social goals in NASCAR, Wallace satirized the flag and his message spread through sports. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James tweeted a “BIG S / O” to Wallace, and retired NFL star Deion Sanders tweeted that he was proud of NASCAR “acknowledging the sensitivity of our country while facing racial injustices.”
Wallace even made some new NASCAR fans – at least for one night – out of other athletes. New Orleans Saints walking back Alvin Kamara responded to NASCAR’s statement with a tweet asking “when is the next race ??” with a popcorn emoji. He followed him on social media, as did Carolina Panthers Safety Tre Boston. Boston tweeted questions about the race and seemed to be enjoying the action in Martinsville, “Are you getting pinned on TV. I look more at the stand than at the drivers I feel. Is this OK? Am I doing this right? Do you all mirror channels? “
Former NFL Security Bernard Pollard Jr. took part in the action on social media and answered a warning question on the broadcast of FS1.
But NASCAR’s decision angered a contingent of flag-loyal people who stewed on social media. NASCAR helmet artist Jason Beam, who paints designs for some of the biggest sports stars, was one of the loudest critics. He unleashed a series of tweets about the movement and wrote, “You can’t erase history by choosing and choosing which parts you want to keep and don’t want to keep.”
Anyway, Reese Witherspoon gave the statement a high-five emoji on Twitter, and that alone could be enough to outweigh the haters.
Martinsville completed a stretch of seven straight Cup races since it resumed on the track without fans. That streak ends on Sunday as 1,000 Florida service representatives, representing the Homestead Air Reserve Base and U.S. Southern Command in Doral, are invited as guests of honor to attend the Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway and watch the race from the stands. The following week on Talladega Superspeedway, up to 5,000 fans will be allowed to attend the race. NASCAR says all fans are screened before entering, must wear face cover, are required to be six feet social distance and have no access to the inner court.