DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Everyone else was jumping, including co-owner Michael Jordan. But Bubba Wallace, who doesn’t hide his feelings, didn’t show much emotion after reaching the playoff cup for the first time.
As Wallace calmly unbuckled his helmet, he paused. The weight of making the playoffs in the sixth attempt took hold of him. He pressed his hands on the door of his Toyota no. 23 and bowed his head. Wallace stood motionless for nearly 10 seconds before straightening up and loosening his helmet strap again.
After removing his helmet and socks, Wallace wiped his face with his hands and placed them on his sides. He looked at the stands and sighed.
“I’m just mentally drained,” Wallace said.
That Wallace showed little emotion – other than relief – shows just how grueling the past few weeks have been for the 23XI Racing driver.
He had to overcome a number of obstacles to reach the regular season finale at Daytona, including a pair of road courses over the last two weeks.
Getting through that race was nothing compared to what he faced this week.
“This week was probably the hardest week I’ve had in a long time, just trying to stay hyper-focused,” Wallace said. “Extremely stressed and up at 2:30 in the morning.”
Shouting into the radio at the finish, Wallace admitted in the pits that he was “a little bit upset, not very excited but at the same time I was mentally going for the bell”.
Five years ago, the scene was completely different when he finished second in his first Daytona 500, becoming the highest-finishing black driver in the event’s history. His mother hugged him during the press conference and told him, “I’m so proud of you.”
“You’re acting like we just won the race,”
“We did it. We did it. We won that race.”
Hugging his sister, Wallace broke down in tears and tried to collect his thoughts.
After finishing second in the 2022 Daytona 500, the emotions were different. After finishing 36-thousandths of a second behind winner Austin Cindric that day, he hung his head on pit road.
“2018 was amazing. 2022 was not amazing,” Wallace said after the race. “For the first time in 2018, I didn’t get a chance to fight. When it’s that close, it’s like a punch in the gut.”
Wallace’s road to the playoffs was filled with high expectations that weren’t always met. Sometimes it was him. Sometimes it was the pit crew. Other times it was a team. Such matters have kept the 29-year-old Wallace from winning this season and put him in a place where his playoff destiny is not entirely in his control.
The pressure was rising.
Before the Indianapolis road race two weeks ago, Wallace acknowledged the weight he put on himself to make the playoffs.
“I think it’s embarrassing if we don’t make the playoffs, for sure,” Wallace said earlier this month. “Next year will be my contract year so I think if we don’t make the playoffs then I could be out. But that’s just me being hard on myself.”
On the second day, he lost 32 points to Daniel Suarez. Wallace’s lead over Suarez has dropped to 28 points with two races remaining in the regular season. Heading into Watkins Glen, another road course, it seemed likely that Suarez could close the gap due to Wallace’s problems at such venues.
Emboldened by a phone conversation with six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon a few hours before last week’s race at Watkins Glen, Wallace finished 12th — his best finish at a road course this year. That gave him a 32-point lead over Ty Gibbs entering Daytona.
“Watkins Glen was a man-up moment,” crew chief Bootie Barker said of Wallace’s performance. “It was great.”
Highlights: NASCAR Cup Series at Daytona
Watch highlights from the NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway, the 2023 regular-season finale before the playoffs.
The effort also meant Wallace was unlikely to lose the final playoff spot on points. If he were to lose it, he would have to be one of 17 drivers to win at Daytona for the first time this season.
Gibbs saw his playoff hopes end Saturday night as he raced to the front. Contact from teammate Christopher Bell sent Gibbs into the car of Ryan Blaney, causing a 12-car crash on the final lap of stage two.
Without Gibbs, Wallace would only fail to make the playoffs if there was a new winner. Among those in that category was former Cup champion Chase Elliott.
Ryan Preece’s violent crash in Turn 3 sent the race into overtime and gave Elliott the chance he needed.
Kevin Harvick led and Chris Buescher was second. Elliott started third behind Harvick on the inside line. Elliott had teammates Alex Bowman and William Byron behind him.
However, they could not push him forward.
“I feel like we had a good chance there, but Brad (Keselowski) and (Chris Buescher) worked so well together there and were able to stay locked in,” Elliott said. “… Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get to Kevin and stay there to make the bottom lane work. I pushed it a little bit there and just couldn’t get enough forward momentum.”
While Elliott couldn’t mount a challenge, Buescher and Keselowski moved past Harvick for the lead.
“When I saw them in front, I was like, ‘Come on! Make sure it happens. Don’t let somebody else win,” Wallace said.
Buescher won for the third time in the last five races, which means Wallace will advance to the playoffs.
“He passed the toughest test,” co-owner Denny Hamlin said of Wallace. “The toughest test is you have two road courses where (he’s) not on top and he has a super-speedway where he has a lead (in the last playoff spot) and he has to find a way to keep it.”
Hamlin said making the playoffs was “the only goal” for Wallace’s team this season
“It’s up to them now,” Hamlin said of what comes next.
What can they do?
Shortly after speaking in Indianapolis about how rough it would be if he didn’t make the playoffs, Wallace noted what it could be like if he did make the postseason.
“If we give ourselves a chance, then we have a chance to do something really great,” he said.
While Saturday’s race wasn’t great for Wallace, the result was.
That’s what Jordan was looking for when he worked with Hamlin to create 23XI Racing for the 2021 season.
“My biggest conversation with Denny was, ‘Look, I don’t want to get there just to go around races and just go around and around and finish 18th, 19th, 20th, 30th,'” Jordan told NBC Sports . and Fox Sports in September 2020. “I want to win. I want to put myself in a position to give us the best chance to win. That’s my competitive nature.”
Jordan celebrated with a hearty congratulations to Hamlin and two hugs from Wallace on the way to the riot.
“I’m happy for him,” Jordan told NBC Sports.
Now it’s a playoff for Wallace.
“Luckily we have Sunday off,” he said. “But Monday is right back to work.
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