Bubba Wallace reflects on what it means to make his first NASCAR Cup playoffs

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Bubba Wallace has certainly been told not to spend time scrolling social media.

But like with many people, there are times when he just can’t help but take a look.

He apparently did in the days leading up to the NASCAR Cup Series regular-season finale Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway. He hovered on the bubble to make the playoffs as the third-best winless driver in points.

Sitting 14th overall, he had a 32-point cushion on Ty Gibbs and a 43-point edge on Daniel Suarez for the final spot. All Wallace needed to do was finish reasonably well at Daytona and as long as no driver who wasn’t already locked into the playoffs won the race, he would advance.

Considering the unpredictable nature of Daytona racing, Wallace knew he would experience a night of wondering whether he’d be in or out.

So when Chris Buescher, who already had two victories this year, crossed the finish line to take the checkered flag, Wallace felt the ecstasy of making the playoffs and the drain from the entire week of stress.

What did the win say about him as a driver? Wallace talked about a social media post on FOX Sports social platforms that predicted he would make the playoffs and the reaction of those who root against him.

“All those comments that people throw on your videos about Bubba Wallace [not] making the playoffs, they’re wrong,” Wallace told FOX Sports after the race.

“I love it. I love it. I love it.”

Bubba Wallace on his emotions and what his playoff berth means

The only Black driver in the NASCAR Cup Series and the first full-time Black driver in the series since Wendell Scott in 1971, Wallace’s advocacy for social justice, the banning of the Confederate flag at tracks and comments about those who dislike him have made him a polarizing figure in the sport.

With Wallace never having won a race in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, there were questions of whether he belonged in Cup when he earned a full-time Cup ride in 2018. He won at Talladega in 2021 and at Kansas in 2022, silencing some of that talk.

But much of it has remained as he had never made the playoffs — both those wins came during the playoffs the past two years. Driving for 23XI Racing, co-owned by elite driver Denny Hamlin and arguably the most famous athlete in the world Michael Jordan, there was an expectation that Wallace would have to perform better when he joined the newly formed team in 2021.

The 23XI Racing team brought in former Cup champion Kurt Busch to be Wallace’s teammate last year. Busch qualified for the 2022 playoffs with a victory but withdrew when he was sidelined with a concussion.

[Related: Kurt Busch officially retires from NASCAR due to concussions]

New Wallace teammate Tyler Reddick won early this season and was ahead of Wallace in the points. So making the playoffs was a career-defining moment for Wallace, who finished 14th in the overall regular-season standings, 80 points behind 12th-place Reddick.

Yes, former Cup champion Chase Elliott most likely would have had more points if he had not missed six races with a broken leg and another for a one-race suspension. But Wallace did what he had to do to make the playoffs.

Few drivers make the playoffs after not qualifying in their first five seasons. They either lose a ride or continue to struggle. Wallace has found a way, amid the spotlight, to continue to progress and improve his skills.

Wallace is averaging 23.85 points per race this year. Last year in the regular season, he averaged 21.35. He beat drivers from Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske, Stewart-Haas Racing and Richard Childress Racing, among others, for a spot in the playoffs.

“Look at the teams and the drivers that he’s beaten,” Hamlin said. “That can’t be stated enough. He beat legitimate teams and drivers that make the playoffs all the time.

“He did it because he works hard, and he’s worked on his craft and getting better. We see it in the race results week in and week out.”

Denny Hamlin on 23XI Racing getting both cars in NASCAR playoffs

Denny Hamlin on 23XI Racing getting both cars in NASCAR playoffs

Making the playoffs was at least in part a culmination of a long journey. Sure, there’s more Wallace would like to accomplish but making the playoffs is a huge step. 

In some ways, Wallace wasn’t sure how to feel afterward.

“Right now I feel like I’m in English class back in high school bored as hell,” Wallace said about 15 minutes after the race. “It’s weird. Sorry to my English teacher, but I think starting Sunday night all the way to climbing in the car, that was the most stressed I’ve ever been but also the most hyper-focused that I’ve ever been.

“It was kind of a surreal situation I was in mentally. I was just proud to make it all work and having the people behind me — my team, my wife helping me navigate all the obstacles getting to this point.”

It nearly never came. Both Aric Almirola and Elliott were in position to win the event late in the race before Buescher and Brad Keselowski were able to control the final couple of laps.

Was Wallace, who finished 12th in the race, feeling helpless?

“One hundred percent,” Wallace said. “With 10 to go, the 9 [of Elliott] and the 10 [of Almirola] were leading and you started getting the pen and paper out to write off the ship.

“And then you see the 17 and 6 [of Buescher and Keselowski] make some moves and you’re like, ‘All right, let’s put the pen back in the pocket and see what happens.'”

What happened was a scary crash involving Ryan Preece, setting up a two-lap overtime finish. 

Ryan Preece flips nearly a dozen times in a scary wreck

Ryan Preece flips nearly a dozen times in a scary wreck

“Of course, we have to have a dramatic finish,” Wallace said. “The runs never got really generated enough to really make anything happen. The 10 was blocked in. The 9 was blocked.

“So that was that. It just kind of worked in our favor.”

With Busch injured last year, Wallace drove the 23XI Racing No. 45 car for the final 10 races because that car was in NASCAR’s owner playoffs, which NASCAR uses to determine payouts to teams. It runs on the same system and concurrently with the driver playoffs.

The Kansas win last year helped that team advance to the next round and gave Wallace some experience on how he will try to manage the next 10 weeks.

“I think we can do some damage,” Wallace said. “Looking back in our first round of the owner playoffs last year was really, really solid.

“We’ve got to create the longevity of that, making the most of it.”

Thinking Out Loud

With the Cup playoffs about to begin, how about some thoughts on who will advance from which round?

Here are some predictions of who gets eliminated in each round.

Eliminated in Round of 16: Kevin Harvick, Bubba Wallace, Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Eliminated in Round of 12: Ross Chastain, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano.

Eliminated in Round of 8: Kyle Busch, Chris Buescher, Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick.

And who wins the title? My pick is Martin Truex Jr. as he has been the most consistent this year and has the experience of battling for the championship in the final race.

In The News

— Parker Kligerman will return as the driver for the Big Machine Racing No. 48 car in 2024. This season was his first full year with the team.

— Ty Majeski, who has advanced to the semifinal round of the truck playoffs, faces a possible points penalty after NASCAR confiscated one of his tires in prerace inspection at Milwaukee. Majeski crew chief Joe Shear was ejected from the event and Majeski had to do a pass-through on the opening lap.

— GMS Racing announced that it will cease operations after this season. The team, owned by Legacy Motor Club co-owner Maury Gallagher, had no manufacturer for next season since Legacy is switching from Chevrolet to Toyota. The team fields trucks for drivers Grant Enfinger, Rajah Caruth and Daniel Dye. Dye said he already has signed a deal for next year. 

— Carson Hocevar will drive the Legacy Motor Club No. 42 car at Darlington. Hocevar, who is in the truck series playoffs driving for Niece Motorsports, has one Cup start in his career, coming at Gateway for Spire Motorsports. Hocevar was supposed to drive in the Xfinity race at Darlington for Spire but will instead focus on the Cup effort with Legacy. 

Social Spotlight

Stat of the Day

In the past 14 summer Cup races at Daytona, there have been 14 different winners. From 2010-23: Kevin Harvick, David Ragan, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Aric Almirola, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Erik Jones, Justin Haley, William Byron, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon and Chris Buescher.

They Said It

“I just want a road-course win. It’s time for a road-course win somewhere here along the way.” —Chris Buescher

Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.

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