By Seth Eggert, Associate Editor
DARLINGTON, S.C. – Despite a miscue on pit road and an early race spin, Bubba Wallace rallied to score a top-10 finish in the opening race of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
The 23XI Racing driver took advantage of a chaotic end to the second Stage of the Cook Out Southern 500 to gain track position. Crew chief Bootie Barker brought the Mobile, AL native onto pit road at Darlington Raceway as the caution waved with six laps to go in Stage 2. That allowed the No. 23 McDonald’s Toyota Camry to stay on track during the ensuing stage break.
Wallace moved into the top-10 with the strategy call. The move to gain track position on strategy came after he spun on the final lap of the first Stage. Luckily, the contact he had with Joey Logano didn’t cause major damage for either driver. That was the second time that Wallace had lost track position after the air hose was caught under the car during the second round of green flag pit stops.
Once inside the top-10, Wallace remained there throughout the final Stage. He picked off positions from Erik Jones, Chase Elliott and others. Another strategy call to keep the 29-year-old on track under the final caution of the race moved him into the top-five. As the tire wear continued however, Wallace slipped out of the top-five in the closing laps, taking the checkered flag in seventh.
“All in all, a decent day – a really good day for our team,” Wallace stated,” but the driver’s got to go back to the drawing board and just take a step back, take a breath and regroup and go to Kansas and have a little one-year anniversary tour.”
Although he finished inside the top-10, Wallace wasn’t happy with his performance. He apologized to both Logano and A.J. Allmendinger, who he had contact with during the 500-mile race. While he had contact with others, he’s using his first race as a driver in the Cup Series Playoffs as a learning experience.
Though there were mistakes, Wallace was also quick to credit the team for sticking behind him as they worked to overcome on-track mistakes. One season ago, the team was in the playoffs by virtue of Kurt Busch’s win at Kansas Speedway, and despite missing the 2022 playoffs as a driver, Wallace’s win at Kansas propelled the team to the Round of 12 in the owner’s playoffs last year.
“I’m not happy with myself,” Wallace admitted. “Apologies to Joey (Logano), apologies to AJ (Allmendinger). I think the important thing to learn here is to not make enemies race one when you’re in the Playoffs because they make it hell, so I deserve everything I got throughout the night. Just did not execute. I’ve got to be better.
“I appreciate the team for sticking behind me through all of the mistakes that I caused them. They didn’t let us down and got us back to a top-10 finish. I was trying to hang on for a top-five, but you’re a double-edged sword. You go really hard at the beginning to try to get a gap or save and you’ve got Ross (Chastain) behind you, and you know he’s not going to let you have any breathing room.”
Wallace qualified 19th for the race at ‘The Track Too Tough to Tame.’ He bounced up and down the running order, running between 12th and 19th through pit stops, the mistake on pit road, and the spin.
The seventh-place finish was the seventh top-10 for Wallace this season. It was his 29th career top-10 finish.
By virtue of the top-10 finish, Wallace climbed from 16th to 13th on the playoff grid. Even with the lack of Stage points the veteran driver is only one point below the playoff cutline, held by fellow Toyota Racing driver Christopher Bell.
Next for Wallace and the 23XI team is the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas. In 11 starts at the 1.5-mile track he has one victory, two top-five and three top-10 finishes.
The Hollywood Casino 400 is scheduled for Sunday, September 10 at 3:00 p.m. ET on USA Network. The race will also be broadcast on the Motor Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, channel 90.