Whenever Michael Jordan is in town you better run well. That’s exactly what Bubba Wallace did in Sunday’s Explore the Pocono Mountains 350 at Pocono Raceway.
After finishing 14th on Saturday in the first race of the Pocono doubleheader, Wallace took the green flag from seventh. The No. 23 Toyota remained in the top 10 for the majority of the stage, closing out the opening 30 laps in fifth position.
During the second stage, Wallace hovered between 12th to 15th, in what he labeled the “hornet’s nest.” Ultimately, he finished the second stage in 16th.
But during the final stage of the race, the No. 23 team stuck to its guns and played the strategy right. When a caution flew on lap 94, Wallace, like some others in the field, elected to pit. That meant he’d have to stretch his fuel mileage to the end in order to maintain a good finish.
“We had a strategy and we stuck to it,” Wallace said post race. “Everyone knows strategy is a part of NASCAR in some way, some fashion.”
Over the final 44-lap run to the finish, Wallace was able to save enough fuel to make it the full distance. Just he, Kyle Larson and Ryan Preece were able to save enough gas to make it to the end.
The end result was Wallace rounding out the top five in the finishing order, his first top-five and top-10 finish for 23XI Racing.
“We executed the way we should have. I applaud [the team], everyone back at the shop for getting the numbers right and everyone at the shop for building the car right to be able to do that.
“A racer wants to win and if it‘s got to save fuel to win, then hell yeah, I‘ll do it. I‘m not going to go against what the engineers are saying up top. You tell me what to do and I‘ll execute that.”
Coming off a solid run on Saturday, Wallace said he knew his car was capable of running inside the top 10, if the team was able to execute.
And unlike some of the other races this season where the No. 23 car failed to put a full race together, it did. In the process, Wallace cut into his points deficit, now sitting 54 points below the playoff cutline with seven races remaining in the regular season.
But a fifth-place finish can do wonders for Wallace mentally going forward.
“Keep digging. Fifth is good, but it‘s not great,” Wallace said of the finish. “This is good for the confidence for me.”
And performing well in front of Jordan, co-owner of 23XI while he watches intensely from a suite, doesn’t hurt.
Wallace added Jordan is a realist, though the team is continuing to improve.
Wallace added, “[Jordan] understands. Everyone talks about how he‘s a winner, he‘s a champion, yeah, but he‘s also a realistic person. He wants to win, but he knows what it will take for us to get there. It‘s more from me, it‘s from the team, it‘s a more group effort.
“He‘s in the background watching and enjoying it. He‘s hooked. Having Michael Jordan hooked to NASCAR is huge and that‘s getting a lot of other big names hooked. That‘s what the sport needs. We‘ll just keep doing our own thing, keep plugging away and moving forward.”
The series heads to Road America next weekend for the inaugural Cup Series event at the famed road course. Wallace has two prior starts at the track, with finishes of fifth and ninth, respectively.
Though not the biggest fan of road course racing, Wallace is optimistic heading into the fourth road course race of the season.
“When we went out there and tested with Chris Cook at Sonoma, that really brought a lot of confidence into Sonoma. And the speed showed, hell, we finished 14th and came from the back. Usually I‘m stuck in the back.
“Going to Road America, it‘s been six years, but it‘s like riding a bike. Been there on the [Toyota Racing Development] sim, it‘s been good. Plug in some time next week and really get ready. Just got to keep going.”
Since finishing 11th at Dover International Speedway, Wallace has five top-15 finishes in the last seven races.