For Bubba Wallace and Daniel Suarez, progress is paramount
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
Bubba Wallace and Daniel Suarez didn’t expect to rattle off top-10 finishes in the opening months with their new teams, but they both seem pleased with their progress.
Progress has been the keyword for both this season, as the two drivers who attract additional spotlight as NASCAR’s only Black and only Mexican full-time national series drivers hope to revitalize their careers with new organizations.
Both organizations have high-profile owners: Wallace with co-owners NBA legend Michael Jordan and NASCAR Cup Series driver Denny Hamlin and Suarez with entertainer Pitbull as a co-owner alongside former NASCAR journeyman driver Justin Marks.
"We’ve been steadily increasing, improving and showing progress," Wallace said. "That’s big. That’s what we talked about from the beginning. Denny was big on progression, just getting everything underneath us.
"We had some things not go our way, but we have been quick to capitalize on that and make sure it doesn’t happen again."
Through the first seven races, Wallace has a best finish of 16th and sits 21st in the standings. His finishes have run from 16th to 28th, with the only accident ending a race early coming at the Daytona 500. He finished top-10 in each of the stages at the Bristol dirt race last week before a flat tire required him to pit under green.
"Proud of you guys," Hamlin tweeted after Wallace’s race Sunday. "Taken big steps over the last month. Keep digging. Stay patient."
Suarez led 58 laps and finished fourth on the Bristol dirt for his first top-10 of the year, which followed a race at Atlanta in which he was running strong before a speeding penalty on pit road. He sits 20th in the standings.
"I feel like we're still a long ways to go from where we want to be, but we're heading the right direction," Suarez said. "Hopefully we can compete in the top-10, top-5 like we've been doing the last couple weeks on a weekly basis. Eventually, we're going to get a trophy."
It's always tough for drivers or new team owners to deliver on that type of talk. They want to say they will win races to show confidence in their teams (and probably to their sponsors), but they also know that winning races as a new organization is not typical.
"This sport is tough," Wallace said. "It is hard at the top level. No one said it is going to be easy. Just because we have all the resources and partners in place, it doesn’t mean it is going to be a cakewalk for us.
"We have to go out and grind and establish ourselves first, and we’re doing that. We’re showing progression each and every step. I’m excited about that."
23XI Racing gets its cars from Joe Gibbs Racing, and Wallace is part of the JGR debriefs on Mondays. 23XI Racing then has its own team debriefs on Tuesdays, which Wallace says build on the feedback from the JGR debriefs. Wallace said it has been good to hear that his feedback is similar to that of the other JGR drivers.
"As a new team coming in, it’s too tall of a task to try to do everything yourself when there’s so many great support systems in place in the industry," Marks said. "Having a technical alliance with an existing team is something new teams have to do.
"You see it in 23XI with Gibbs Racing. It allows us to be able to immediately have a seat at the table when it comes to knowledge and data and access to engineering systems and things like that that would be too much for me to invest in from Day 1."
Why shouldn’t they expect to race as well as the teams they are aligned with? The biggest thing is that as new organizations and new driver-crew chief pairings, learning each other can take time.
Wallace noted that earlier this season, he told crew chief Mike Wheeler that the car was tight and "I need a little bit."
After coming in the pits for adjustments, Wallace radioed back to his crew: "Did you do anything – it wasn’t enough?"
The response from Wheeler: "I don’t know what is ‘a little bit.’"
"Wheels and I are starting to vibe and jell and understand what each other needs to make our team better," Wallace said.
That type of communication takes time. It also takes time for crew chiefs to learn what motivates their drivers. For Suarez, crew chief Travis Mack tries to not always be serious.
"He keeps things loose," Marks said. "And Daniel has always been better when he has been able to laugh in the race car and be a little bit loose before he gets in, and Travis has been contributing to that."
Marks said the biggest thing he wants after a good run is for his team to evaluate why it had a good run. Was it the car? Was it strategy? Was it the way Suarez drove?
New teams in some ways have to ignore the result when trying to do that debrief. They have to go through the same process in evaluating and dissecting the performance each week.
"It’s just constantly improving and just staying hungry at what our vision is and what our goals are," Wallace said. "No one had us signed up to win every race right out of the box. That’s not realistic.
"For us, it’s to continue getting better and better, and we’ve done that."
Thinking Out Loud
There has been some chatter about whether NASCAR should use the current year’s car for the Bristol dirt next year instead of the Next Gen (the car teams will debut in 2022) because the dirt race can pretty much destroy a car, and there would be inventory left over from this year.
The biggest issue could be the underbody of the Next Gen, which seals off more area underneath the car and could drag the surface if it develops divots, as it did this year.
But there are problems with the idea of using the "old" car for the Bristol dirt race. It would demand different technical inspection equipment than what NASCAR will create for next year, and the cars all of a sudden will look different for one race.
Teams will have "old" Next Gen cars. They will start building them in June, and most top teams probably will only test and never seriously race their first versions as they develop the car. They will have a car that they can "afford" to get dirty. Either NASCAR’s in with the new car, or it’s out, and it should be in with it for the Bristol dirt.
They Said It
"I can promise you, I watch every one of these races back, and I'm not the only one being aggressive." – Joey Logano on his reputation
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass.