By Dustin Albino

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The primary goal that Bubba Wallace had for the 2023 NASCAR season was to make the playoffs. It’s something he hadn’t done in his previous five full-time seasons and would have been disappointed had he gone three years at 23XI Racing without a postseason trip.

Wallace entered Saturday night’s regular-season cutoff race at Daytona International Speedway stuck between a rock and a hard place. He was on the playoff bubble, 32 points ahead of Ty Gibbs. That’s just enough of a buffer to be able to race hard, but should the No. 23 Toyota get caught up in an incident, his chances at a postseason run could be over in an instant.

Admittedly, the buildup leading into Daytona was mentally taxing on Wallace.

“This week was probably the hardest week I‘ve had in a long time,” Wallace said. “Just trying to stay hyper-focused and stressed out to the max and waking up at 2:30 in the morning and my wife is like, ‘What‘s going on?‘ I was just stressed.”

As fate would have it, Wallace and Gibbs qualified fourth and fifth, respectively, for the Coke Zero Sugar 400. The two were nose-to-tail for the majority of the opening stage, with Gibbs gaining a pair of points. Come the second stage, it looked like Gibbs was going to chip into that deficit even more.

While battling for the stage win on the final lap of Stage 2, Christopher Bell got into the rear of the No. 54 Toyota and then got Gibbs loose in Turns 3 and 4. Gibbs lost control and right-hooked Ryan Blaney into the wall, triggering a 12-car pileup that brought out the red flag. Gibbs’ shot at the playoffs was over.

The SAFER Barrier really went to work for Ryan Blaney. 😳

Look at the wall flex as he makes impact. #NASCAR

— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) August 27, 2023

Worrying about points was over. Wallace just had to hope there wouldn’t be a new winner below the elimination line. And for a large chunk of the final stage, it looked like that fear could become a nightmare for the No. 23 team, as Chase Briscoe led for 45 consecutive laps. At one point, all three 0f Stewart-Haas Racing’s entry’s that needed to win took up the top three positions.

When the final set of pit stops cycled through, Kevin Harvick was leading. A caution flew for a frightening incident involving Ryan Preece and Briscoe. On the restart, Chase Elliott was the lone driver in the first two rows that could push Elliott out of a playoff spot.

“With about 10 to go, I was like, ‘There‘s a new winner,”” Wallace said post race. “With eight to go, I was like, ‘Alright, no new winners.‘ It was a roller coaster those last five laps.”

Denny Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing had a “front-row seat” of watching the action. He was a lap down with damage from the melee at the end of the second stage.

“I was looking and saw that the top four were race winners and that was a perfect scenario for me to see them up there,” Hamlin said. “I wanted to see green lights all the way until the end. I knew that once we took the white, our race was over we weren‘t going to get the lucky dog, so I‘m praying that the 6 and 17 stay in formation and win the race.”

During the overtime restart, RFK Racing teammates Chris Buescher and Brad Keselowski remained loyal to one another. The No. 17 car crossed the finish-line first to win its third race in the last month. Wallace ranked 12th, enough to be in the playoffs.

Wallace felt relieved.

“Proud to be locked into the playoffs,” Wallace said. “23XI, third year in, getting both cars in the playoffs. We’ve gone through a lot of trials and tribulations. So proud of the effort we put in.

“No matter how much we set ourselves back, we know that we have a kick-ass group and can bounce back from everything.”

Prior to the race on Saturday, multiple 23XI team members told Wallace to control what he could control. The team put together a flawless race from an execution standpoint, something the team has lacked at various stages of its tenure.

“We executed like we are supposed to,” Wallace said. “That was the first time I lifted before the line at a speedway race. I saw the 17 won and I was out.”

Hamlin noted that Wallace passed the toughest test, which he considered was ending the regular season with consecutive road course races and then a superspeedway race in Daytona. Wallace stated the last month was difficult.

“Really tough,” he said of the stretch to the postseason. “You know me on road courses. I just don‘t give myself enough credit and it spills over and is tough. Watkins Glen, I don‘t know if I‘ve ever been more proud of myself — more than Kansas, and I thought that was special. Just riding off of that and getting through it all and making the most of it.”

Wallace enters the postseason as the 16th seed, scoring no playoff points during the regular season. But he does have playoff experience, as he subbed for Kurt Busch in the No. 45 car last fall to battle for the owner’s championship. And in his second race out at Kansas, he won.

Hamlin believes Wallace could play spoiler as long as the No. 23 team continues to perform at a top-notch level. Speed won’t be an issue.

“He’s going to have fast cars, I can assure you of that,” Hamlin said. “I think he‘s going to be excited and love the challenge that this is going to put in front of him. I believe that the tracks lay out well for Bubba, especially the first round. They could find themselves for a threat to go as deep as their execution. That‘s going to be key. If they can execute to get some stage points, they can run pretty deep.”

Wallace enters Darlington Raceway sitting eight points below the elimination line.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *