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AP photo by John Raoux / NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace motions to his crew about time left before getting in his car during a Feb. 14 practice for the Daytona 500. Wallace is currently the only African American driver on the top-tier Cup Series.

HAMPTON, Ga. — NASCAR has a checkered racial history.

From an affinity for Confederate flags among the fan base to a driver on the top-tier Cup Series losing his job just this season for casually uttering a racial slur, the stock car racing giant and its supporters never have been known for diversity.

To many, it may not be surprising that those associated with a sport in which most of the participants and fans are white seemed hesitant to join the national outrage over the May 25 death of George Floyd while in the custody of police in Minneapolis. NASCAR's lack of a vocal response, though, provided a striking contrast to its rush to be the first major sport to return during the coronavirus pandemic.

This weekend NASCAR is at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the fourth venue to stage races without fans since competition resumed last month. Saturday's doubleheader at the 1.5-mile track — A.J. Allmendinger, known for his skill on road courses, won the second-tier Xfinity Series event for his first NASCAR win on an oval; Grant Enfinger won the third-tier Truck Series race — will be followed by Sunday's 3 p.m. Cup Series race, which will be televised by Fox.

Ahead of the action, Truck Series driver Matt Crafton was asked about the protests in all 50 states and around the world demanding an end to police brutality against African Americans.

"I just try to stay off social media," said the 43-year-old ThorSport Racing driver, clearly uncomfortable with the subject. "At the end of the day, there's a lot to talk about. I don't try to get involved in a lot. That's a terrible thing that happened to the gentleman in Minneapolis. But there's a lot of things going on that I'd rather not talk about."

Bubba Wallace, a 26-year-old Richard Petty Motorsports driver who was born in Mobile, Alabama, and is currently the only African American in the Cup series, expressed frustration that so many of his peers were reluctant to speak out.

"A few drivers — a very few — have given their opinion on the day's matter, and I appreciate that," Wallace said on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s podcast. "But the silence from the top drivers in our sport is beyond frustrating. ... Our sport has always had somewhat of a racist label to it. NASCAR — everybody thinks redneck, Confederate flag, racists — and I hate it. I hate that because I know NASCAR is so much more."

Wallace said he encouraged other drivers to take up the cause, including rising star Chase Elliott, who won May 28 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and will start from the pole position in Sunday's Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500 — essentially a home race for the 24-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver from Dawsonville.

"I said, 'Do you all not care about what's going on in the world?'" Wallace explained. "That's not the right way to go about it. Our voices carry so much more weight than Joe Schmo from down the street. I mentioned we've got to do better, we've got to step up for everybody to say what they feel."

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AP file photo by John Raoux / NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time Cup Series champion, said in the wake of protests related to the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of police, "as a representative of our sport and just a citizen, it's really time to listen."

Jimmie Johnson, Elliott's 44-year-old teammate with a record-tying seven Cup Series titles who is in his final season as a full-time driver, reached out to Wallace to ask what he could do.

"That's a big question I have for myself right now," said Johnson, who will be honored on what could be his final race in Atlanta by having a grandstand named after him. "When you sit down and listen, you realize there's a lot of injustices taking place across a broad spectrum. As a representative of our sport and just a citizen, it's really time to listen. I look forward to the journey that takes me on and the ways I can be active."

Even though African Americans are rare in NASCAR, Johnson said he was taken aback at what Wallace has gone through to reach the top echelon.

"I had no idea the challenges he was faced with," Johnson conceded. "I want to have a voice. I want to stand up to injustices. I'm trying to find that voice. Part of that journey is educating myself. I'm very deep into that."

Atlanta Motor Speedway was set to host the Cup Series on March 15, but that weekend's races became the first to be postponed because of the pandemic that has now killed more than 100,000 Americans.

Johnson has won five times at the tri-oval known for its slippery, worn-out surface that puts a premium on managing tire wear and getting the most out of long runs between pit stops. Mired in a winless streak that has now stretched for more than three years, he hopes to finally break through at one of his favorite tracks.

Even if he doesn't win, it figures to be a memorable weekend. The Winners Grandstand will be renamed the Johnson Grandstand, joining sections named in honor of fellow seven-time Cup Series champions Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.

"Granted, there won't be fans to celebrate with," Johnson said. "But it's still an emotional and special moment to go back to tracks for what could be the final time."

Johnson acknowledged taking a stand against racism and police brutality could spark a backlash from some NASCAR fans.

"Obviously, this a very divisive topic," he said. "But you've got to follow your heart and positions that you believe in. It's hard to live your life worrying about other people. You've got to let the passion in your life shine through. The things you believe in, you need to follow that.

"Ultimately, I feel a need to have a voice in this. I'm still trying to find that voice, but I'm being pulled this way more than I have other times. There's just something inside of me that makes me feel like I need to do it."

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