The most iconic numbers in NASCAR history are 3 and 43.
The 3 belonged to the late, great Dale Earnhardt. The 43 was run by Richard Petty, the man who put the sport on the map, won more races than anyone else and is known simply as The King.
Today, Petty owns that 43 car. He chose Bubba Wallace, a Black man, to drive it. And still, even with the blessing of the King, there are racing fans who choose to hate Wallace because of the color of his skin.
Wallace was one of the drivers who recently asked NASCAR to remove Confederate flags from their racing events, a request the organization has honored and embraced.
During race week at the Talladega Superspeedway, in Lincoln, Alabama, however, people raised the flag at tailgate parties. One person even paid to have a plane fly it over the speedway, accompanied by the words "Defund NASCAR."
And then, this past weekend, a noose was found hanging in Wallace's garage stall, an overt threat that NASCAR and the FBI are investigating. It did not merely spark outrage ... it created an incredible action.
Before the Geico 500, the drivers and their crew members pushed Wallace in that 43 car down to pit road, then stood with him for the national anthem.
El Cajon native Jimmie Johnson has been outspoken about equality and helped organize the gesture.
"This is such a big family in the garage area and the news really has disturbed us all," said Johnson before the race. "Of course we want justice, in a sense. We want to understand who and why and all of those things, but until the questions are answered, we want to stand with our friend. We want to stand with Bubba. That's what took place last night and this morning. As this idea came together -- it started within the drivers and then as the crew members caught wind that we wanted to push Bubba's car down and stand with him during the national anthem, the teams wanted to get involved, as well -- and you saw the support. It's pretty amazing."
Wallace was overcome with emotion at the support of his fellow drivers. He Tweeted a selfie from his car, backed by an army of supporters, an image that will no doubt become of the iconic sports photos of the year.
Another man was awaiting Wallace when he arrived on pit road: Richard Petty. The King is 82 years old and hasn't been to a race in person since the coronavirus outbreak. When he heard what happened in Wallace's garage stall, he went straight to the track, putting his life at risk to support his driver. Petty has called for whoever hung the noose to be permanently expelled from NASCAR, something the series says is going to happen.
"There is no room for this at all," said NASCAR president Steve Phelps. "We won't tolerate it, and they will not be here. I don't care who they are -- they won't be here. I had the opportunity to speak with The King this morning. He is resolved with his team to figure out how we can work together to get this solved and figure out who the person is that did this act."
If that person was trying to scare Bubba Wallace, it didn't work. Instead, it did something many thought was impossible: Galvanize a sport with deep Southern roots to become an outspoken proponent of racial equality.
Wallace had a great day on the track, leading a few laps before fuel issues led to a 14th-place finish (one spot behind Johnson). Afterwards Bubba was asked about the incident in the garage and the pre-race gesture.
"The sport is changing. The deal that happened yesterday ... I'm sorry I'm not wearing my mask (coronavirus facial covering) but I wanted to show whoever it was that you're not going to take away my smile," said Wallace. "The pre-race deal ... that was probably one of the hardest things I've ever had to witness in my life. From all the supporters, from drivers, from crew members, everybody here. The badass fan base, thank you guys for coming out here. This is truly incredible and I'm proud to be a part of this sport. I've got a long way to go and we'll keep on trucking."