Bubba Wallace enters Daytona hoping to reach NASCAR playoffs
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
Earlier this month, Bubba Wallace signed a new contract that will keep him at 23XI Racing, so he doesn’t enter the regular-season finale Saturday night thinking it could determine his future beyond the next 10 weeks.
Also, having finished second in the previous two Daytona races (the 2021 elimination race and the 2022 Daytona 500), as well as the 2018 Daytona 500, Wallace knows he can race for the win at the drafting-style track. His lone Cup victory came in October at Daytona’s sister track, Talladega.
All he needs to do from his last two visits to Daytona is improve by one spot. And with three top-5s and four top-10s in the past six NASCAR Cup Series races, Wallace looks at Daytona both a little frustrated and a little hopeful.
"I don’t believe we should have been in this position," he said. "With the speed that we’ve had and some of the races that we’ve called throughout the year, we should be, if not have been in victory lane already, but competing with [Ryan] Blaney and [Martin] Truex [Jr.] for the point battle.
"Our speed has been great all year — just the execution has not been there. So it puts us in situations like this to where people may think there is more pressure ... but that’s when the problems start — when you start to overanalyze things."
"We’re all smart enough to know the circumstances that we’ve been through all year long, our results and where we’re at now," Wallace said.
"No one is happy about it. But it is what it is. That’s life. You don’t get to redo anything. You’ve got what you’ve got. We’ll just keep building on it and continue to get better and better, which we have been. We’ve been a really solid team this last month-and-a-half, and that’s been fun to see and fun to be a part of."
A win would also be a sign of progress for the 28-year-old driver. His four top-5s and six top-10s this year are already career highs. On the other hand, his average finish of 19.0 is a little disappointing, considering that his average was 19.7 last year, his first full season averaging above 20th. Now in his fifth full-time Cup year, the hope was that Wallace would make more gains.
But talk to those who have watched him throughout his career, and they see the difference. Kevin Harvick outdueled Wallace for the win at Michigan, and Wallace was somewhat despondent afterward, despite having lost to one of the greatest drivers of the past 20 years.
That finish was his fourth consecutive top-10.
"He’s consistently faster," Harvick said. "That’s the biggest thing. ... Right now, in a lot of the races this year, if you just keep the car rolling and stay on the lead lap, you have a good shot at the top-10s.
"That’s a huge progression for him from where he was at the beginning. They've had a lot of trouble, but also the car hasn't been rolling [because it was wrecked] at a bunch of those, too, and I think he's getting to that point where he's learning how to finish more races, which is important."
Denny Hamlin, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing and co-owns 23XI Racing with basketball legend Michael Jordan, signed Wallace two years ago as the first driver for the organization.
Hamlin brought in former Cup champion Kurt Busch before this season to give the team a veteran voice and Wallace a mentor. Hamlin then saw what he needed to see out of Wallace to sign him to an extension.
"I'm heavily invested in the sport because I want to win and be competitive and build a top-tier, elite racing team," Hamlin said. "So if I didn't think Bubba had the capability of winning, it doesn't matter about any other factors.
"He is part of this team because I believe he can win. I think that he's showing that he's racing our cars to full potential right now. ... His contract extension with us was definitely well-warranted from what I've seen this season, not just including the four [consecutive top-10] weeks."
Wallace said he has a lot of unfinished business at 23XI. He is still growing as a driver and, for the first time, finds himself consistently running with the elite in the Cup Series. That is a learning process in and of itself.
It also means pit stops are more crucial, and Wallace has been critical of his pit crew when it stumbles.
"I've obviously tried to do my best this year and made some mistakes along the way that the team wasn't happy about," Wallace said. "But we worked through those things. ... It's part of racing, it's part of sports, it's part of growing up and maturing.
"From Day 1 on joining this team, I wanted to make this where I retire and a place that I call home for a really long time. So I’ll just try and do the best that I can and continue those efforts."
Hamlin admits now that maybe he expected too much out of Wallace last year.
"Hopefully we just continue on this trend because it's certainly what I want to see and what I expected last year," Hamlin said. "It probably was a little much to ask in Year 1, not only from him but from our race team.
"These things take time. It doesn't matter how much money you can throw at this. You cannot just buy wins."
Wallace knows he’ll have a good car for Saturday. He knows he has to put himself in position to win. And amid all the talk about helping the manufacturer at a track such as Daytona, where a driver often needs a push from another driver, Wallace said that will go only so far.
He might have to be selfish to make the playoffs.
"When you get down to the last couple of laps, and you're in this scenario to capitalize and pounce on, then you’ve got to do what's best for your team — you and your team and your partners," Wallace said. "Because that's what it's really about."
What to watch for
The Hendrick and Trackhouse drivers could be the most pivotal when it comes to who will win at Daytona. That's because they're the only organizations that have all their drivers in the playoffs.
What's more, pushing one of those drivers would eliminate Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr., two drivers considered dangerous if they get into the postseason.
Do drivers think about that? Some told me they might have it in their minds. But it’s also much easier said than done, as far as choosing to push someone to the win, given how many variables are in play.
Thinking out loud
It was a little surprising to hear Kyle Larson say he needs to show more respect to a teammate if he finds himself in a situation similar to the one he was in for the last restart at Watkins Glen.
Did Larson make an aggressive move? Yes. Did he skid the front tires and slide into Chase Elliott? Yes. Did the move earn him the win and result in Elliott finishing fourth? Yes.
But it’s side-by-side for the lead on a road course. And stuff like that is going to happen. Larson's move wasn’t egregious. It wasn’t like he needed to run into Elliott to make the corner (compared to a day earlier, when William Byron's beef with Ty Gibbs was that Gibbs never would have made the corner).
Generally, teammates should race each other with respect, with a little more give than what they would offer to others in a give-and-take scenario.
But when going for the win? Let’s keep the gloves off. Even for teammates.
They said it
"In the end, I probably should have a little bit more respect next time." — Larson on the Watkins Glen finish and his battle with Elliott
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. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!