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Jun. 22—Pocono Raceway will always be special for Bubba Wallace.

NASCAR’s only full-time Black driver made his Cup Series debut at the 2.5-mile triangular track in Long Pond in June 2017. Filling in for an injured Aric Almirola, Wallace drove the famed No. 43 car for Richard Petty Motorsports to a 26th-place finish.

“I’ll never forget that first one,” Wallace said. “Lot of fun driving the 43 (car) there and starting my career in the Cup Series. It has a lot of history for me.”

Wallace became the full-time driver for Petty Motorsports in 2018 and spent three seasons with the organization. He said it was amazing to hear Petty and his long-time crew chief Dale Inman tell stories about their racing days from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

“I don’t even know if they were stories, it was more like bickering back and forth at each other,” Wallace said. “So you were just kind of a fly on the wall listening to all those funny conversations they had, from racing in New York one night then driving across the country for the next. Those guys had a true grit about them, to be able to go out and do that and be competitive and win as many races as they did.

“Just grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. Coming up through the ranks, racing for the King, getting to know and be a part of that family, it’s been super cool. The best that I can be is always what they pushed me to do.”

Now, Wallace is driving for another legend. He left Petty Motorsports at the end of last season to join 23XI Racing, a team co-owned by basketball Hall of Famer Michael Jordan and Cup Series driver Denny Hamlin.

As he heads to Pocono this weekend for the NASCAR Cup Series doubleheader, Wallace and the first-year team are still looking for their first top-10 finish. Through 17 races, he has nine top-20 finishes with an 11th place at Dover being his best.

Hamlin said for the first-year team to be running in the mid-teens is decent. Having an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing has helped.

“It takes a lot of infrastructure to be doing everything yourselves — building the cars, developing the cars, the whole engineering department, the fab shop. That takes years and years to build,” Hamlin said. “So for us to have an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, essentially a service fee we pay them to provide us the best cars that they can get, that’s worked for us getting off the ground. As we grow and continue to get bigger, we’ll continue to make that relationship stronger and hopefully find ourselves more competitive week in and week out.”

Making progress and improving each race has been the team’s goal. Be better in the summer months than in the spring, then be better in the fall than during the summer. Wallace feels the team has done that.

“We started out as a top-20 team, got to a top 15 team, now I feel like we’re a top-12 team,” Wallace said. “Just keep progressing, small steps at a time. We obviously want to win and be at the top of the ladder. But it takes a lot of hard work, dedication, blood, sweat and tears to get there. We’re getting there slowly but surely.”

Because of how competitive he and Jordan are, Hamlin said it has been difficult to accept that success takes time.

“Having the patience to understand that we’re building something for the long term, it takes a lot of patience and something I’m not certainly not good at,” Hamlin said.

At Pocono, Wallace has an average finish of 26.0 in seven career starts. He now has a valuable resource to lean on in his boss; Hamlin has won six times at the track, tied for the most with Jeff Gordon.

“Denny is one of the best around here,” Hamlin said. “I’ll pick his brain and we’ll have some of his historical notes to look over as well. Some tips and tricks to be mindful of. I’m looking forward to that because of the history of Denny and Toyota being strong there. Should be a lot of fun.”

It was around this time last year that Wallace was thrust into the social justice issue when a pull rope at his garage stall at Talladega was tied as a noose.

While some progress has been made, he said that we must continue to push and strive for diversity and equality, both in NASCAR and society.

“It’s a never-ending battle,” Wallace said. “I’ve definitely become more mature throughout my years of trying to navigate through all that. I think it’s for the better. I can wake up and try to be the best person I can be and hopefully that motivates others.”

The doubleheader weekend at Pocono, which is celebrating 50 years of racing on the 2.5-mile triangular track, starts Friday with the ARCA Series General Tire #AnywhereIsPossible 200 at 6 p.m. On Saturday, the NASCAR Trucks Series CRC Brakleen 150 is at noon, followed by the NASCAR Cup Series 325-mile race at 3 p.m. Then Sunday, the NASCAR Xfinity Series Pocono Green 225 is at noon and the Cup Series Explore The Pocono Mountains 350 is at 3:30 p.m.

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