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Social justice at NASCAR's forefront as new season begins

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

FILE - In this June 10, 2020, file photo, driver Bubba Wallace, wearing an "I Can't Breathe" T-shirt waits for the start of a NASCAR Cup Series auto race in Martinsville, Va. A predominantly white sport with deep Southern roots and a longtime embrace of Confederate symbols, NASCAR was forced last summer to face its own checkered racial history during the countrys social unrest. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – NASCAR received warnings — “Go Woke, Go Broke” — from every corner of the internet last summer. Fans said they didn't want to hear about social justice, and banning the Confederate flag at racetracks would drive them from the sport forever.

If there has been an exodus, NASCAR has not noticed.

A predominately white sport with deep Southern roots and a longtime embrace of Confederate symbols, NASCAR was forced last summer to face its own checkered racial history during the country’s social unrest: Bubba Wallace wore an “I Can't Breathe” T-shirt on pit road and raced a car with “Black Lives Matter” painted on the hood; his peers promised to listen and learn; a NASCAR official knelt during the national anthem; and the governing body vowed to to do a better job of addressing racial injustice.

As a new season begins Sunday with the Daytona 500, a new era of social consciousness has enveloped the sport and NASCAR is committed for the long haul. There's not a Confederate flag to be found at the speedway. A large sign before an infield tunnel warns that the Stars and Bars are barred from the property, and compliance has not been a problem at Daytona.

In fact, NASCAR President Steve Phelps cited a brand tracking study by Directions Research that found that 1,750 self-identified “avid NASCAR fans” overwhelmingly supported the sanctioning body's stance on social justice in 2020.

“It was a moment in time back in June that seemed, for us, it was the right time to act. I think it was the right time for our country. I think it was the right time for our sport. The response to that was fantastic,” Phelps said. “What we do in the areas of social justice and diversity equity inclusion is going to be authentic to who we are. May not be the right thing for the NBA, but it’s going to be the right thing for us.”

Wallace, the only full-time Black racer at the national level, has been the face of NASCAR's movement. Born in Alabama but raised in North Carolina, Wallace no longer wanted to see the Confederate flag at his workplace.

Wallace found his voice on racial injustice after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the backlash was immediate. Less than two weeks after Wallace's successful push to ban the Confederate flag, fans paraded past the entrance at Talladega Superspeedway with the flag flying from their vehicles.