With a long line of congratulatory crew members and his proud wife Amanda waiting for a high-five and kisses respectively, Bubba Wallace climbed out of his No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota on Daytona International Speedway pit road Saturday night, turned toward his car, bowed his head and paused. Taking it all in.
After five seasons – and an assortment of previous championship-field near-misses – in NASCAR’s premier NASCAR Cup Series, the 29-year old Alabama-native claimed a 12th place finish in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 and that effort coupled with a repeat winner – Chris Buescher’s third victory of the year – resulted in Wallace’s Playoff debut. Officially, he earned the berth by 47-points over Trackhouse Racing’s Daniel Suarez and will join a 16-driver field eligible to compete for the season title.
Wallace let out an emotional scream into the team radio on the post-race cooldown lap and joked, “I love Chris Buescher so much.’’
With 15 of the 16 Playoff positions already determined, Wallace went into the night holding a slim 32-point advantage over Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Ty Gibbs for the final transfer position. Wallace had multiple avenues to steer into the championship run – maintain his 16th place points position if there was no first-time season winner or win the race outright himself. There were 16 drivers who could have jumped over him in the championship standings should they score their first win of the season Saturday at Daytona.
“I don’t know if there was much strategy as much luck,’’ said Wallace, who has three runner-up finishes at Daytona and considers it one of his best venues.
“We executed. We had no personal mistakes, dodged a wreck or two and just survived. … something was off and we didn’t have the 23-speed that we usually do when we come here. I think we tried some different things, but hey, we survived and that’s what we wanted to do.
“We saw the 54 [Gibbs] and a lot of cars get taken out [in a 12-car accident on Lap 96] and knew what we wanted to do. We just didn’t need a new winner. With about 10 to go, I was like, ‘there’s going to be a new winner,’ then about eight to go, ‘all right, no new winner.’ Just an emotional rollercoaster those last laps.’’
Things worked in Wallace’s favor even if those closing laps were stressful. Five drivers finished better than him and were at times seriously challenging for that trophy and Playoff bid. Outside polesitter Aric Almirola finished third. Chase Elliott was fourth and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman sixth. Corey LaJoie finished 10th and Ty Dillon earned an 11th place showing. Had any of them won, they would be competing for the NASCAR Cup Series trophy instead of Wallace.
Elliott, who missed six races for a combination of a broken leg he suffered in a ski accident and a one-race suspension from NASCAR, went into the race a favorite for his past work at the track, but also a longshot since he was 101-points behind Wallace at the green flag.
“It’s a bummer, for sure,’’ Elliott said. “Hate the season has worked out like it has. The good news is the car got in in the owner’s points. That’s a big deal. Credit to [crew chief] Alan [Gustafson] and everybody for continuing to work and scratch and claw while I was out to keep our team alive and to give ourselves a chance. That’s a big deal, probably much bigger than a lot of people realize to our team.
“Looking forward to these next 10 [races]. Try to make a little noise on that side of things and just try to get ready and prepared for next year. But I appreciate everybody’s support through this season. Hasn’t been what I would want by any means. Certainly going to be some lessons taken from it, and I think we’ll be better for it on the other end.”
As Wallace spoke to the gathered media members next to his car on pit road, he received a steady stream of hearty congratulations. His 23XI Racing teammate Tyler Reddick – also in the Playoffs – came up behind Wallace and gave him a bearhug during a television interview. His team owner Denny Hamlin, who finished 26th and just missed out on the regular season championship, walked over for a hearty handshake and hug.
Wallace’s veteran crew chief Booty Barker watched from a few feet away, smiling and proud – insisting he was always confident that Wallace and the team would advance to the title round.
“All the crew, 23XI we got it done and I’m proud of everybody,’’ Barker said, adding, “We knew you could get three green-white-checkers here so didn’t get too excited.
“We have really good people and I always tell my people how good they are and now there’s proof. It makes them stronger and they have more confidence and belief in our people and the sky’s the limit.’’
Wallace scored both his career NASCAR Cup Series wins in the Playoffs – at Talladega (Ala.) and Kansas – although he wasn’t Playoff eligible himself when he hoisted the trophies. That bodes well for his outlook and optimism level.
First though, Wallace smiled and said he looked forward to sleeping through the night and changing the stress focus. Being on the “Playoff bubble” has been a lot.
“I’m so focused on Darlington now and so relieved,’’ Wallace said.
“So many people told me, ‘control what you can control.’ and we executed as we were supposed to.’’
The first three-race elimination round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs begins next week with the traditional Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway then continues with races at Kansas Speedway and Bristol (Tenn.).
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