By Dustin Albino

BRISTOL, Tenn. — After the first month of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, Bubba Wallace sat 16th in the championship standings with a best effort of fourth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Since then, it’s been a tough stretch.

At Atlanta Motor Speedway, a race in which Wallace entered as one of the favorites due to his superspeedway prowess, he spun on lap 10 and went multiple laps down after hitting the inside wall. The No. 23 team was never able to get back on the lead lap and finished 27th, five laps down.

The following weekend at Circuit of The Americas, Wallace looked to be on pace for his best career on a road course. But on lap 10, he overshot Turn 12 and broke an oil line after clobbering Kyle Larson’s car.

Then there was last weekend at Richmond Raceway, when Wallace consistently ran inside the top 15, at one point cracking the top 10. When he made it passed lap 10 in the 400-lap race, he jokingly said he shed a tear.

But during a late pit stop, a crew member laid out while retrieving a tire and fell over the pit wall. Wallace had to make a pass through penalty and finished 22nd.

“It‘s frustrating,” Wallace said this weekend while discussing the Richmond incident. “I know my guys, Bootie especially, he‘s tired of me saying — I‘m always a glass half full, borderline pessimistic, guy. But I like to keep it real. I did the math. Every year I‘ve been in Cup, so six years now, we‘ve had right around the same average finish for the first six races.

“It‘s like it doesn‘t matter how much things change, we‘re still going down the same path. That doesn‘t stop and doesn‘t carry over to the next week. It‘s like, ‘Hey, I‘m just pointing this out.‘ New year, you‘re so excited with so much confidence and same results. It‘s like, ‘What the hell?‘”

Wallace hopes that trend doesn’t continue this weekend, despite wishing the Cup Series wasn’t competing on dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway. He’s dropped to 22nd in the championship standings, 46 points below the cutline.

“We need to win before the playoffs and we‘ll be fine,” Wallace said.”

As the No. 23 team showed through the middle and later portions of the 2022 season, its capable of running at the front of the field. Wallace has become a perennial threat to win on intermediate tracks, as Toyota shined on those layouts last year.

There’s three more pack-style tracks before the playoffs, an area that Wallace as shined at throughout his Cup career. First, though, it’s tackling Bristol dirt, where he won his qualifying heat on Saturday.

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