Daytona 500 runner-up finish ‘like a gut punch’ this time for Bubba Wallace

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Bubba Wallace has been in this exact situation before, yet his emotions couldn’t be more different.

In 2018, Wallace finished second in the Daytona 500 by 0.206 seconds. Sunday night, he had the same result. This time, he crossed 0.036 seconds too late.

“I didn’t have a fighting chance the first time in 2018,” Wallace said. “This one, being that close, it’s just like a gut punch. Going from all the confidence in the world to literally having it ripped out from underneath you is a really s—– feeling.”

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Wallace isn’t referencing the margin of victory, though.

The 2018 run was not only his first career top five, but top 10. It also doubled as the first race of his rookie season in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet.

Now, Wallace is in his fifth full-time season and driving the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota. He has a win under his belt — Talladega Superspeedway in October 2021, the last race on the track type before Sunday.

“I think Bubba has a lot of confidence in the speedways,” 23XI Racing director of competition Mike Wheeler said. “I think him and Freddie (Kraft, spotter) did a really good job, hearing them work and learn and improve and be a top-tier group. It really shows to be pretty good. So, proud of that effort and hopefully keep going with that.”

Wallace was in position to win in overtime, too.

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With two laps to go, Wallace lined up behind Ryan Blaney on the inside lane for the restart. Blaney’s teammate, Austin Cindric, was up top in the lead, with Brad Keselowski behind him.

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“He and Freddie talked about it,” No. 23 crew chief Bootie Barker said. “They knew we had to shove the 12, keep shoving the 12 so it kept us going forward, too, to have enough energy so at the end something could happen.”

Instead, Cindric pulled in front of Blaney. Keselowski remained outside. It stayed like that until the final sprint to the checkered flag when Blaney tried to make a move. Cindric blocked him, leaving a gap open for Wallace.

Wallace was half a car length short of Cindric at the finish line.

The repeat outcome puts Wallace on a short list with Blaney (twice), Charlie Glotzbach (twice) and Terry Labonte (three times) as drivers with multiple runner-up finishes in the Daytona 500. There’s disappointment, but there’s also momentum — and confidence.

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“Higher than it ever has been,” Barker said. “But we know the work we got cut out for us at all the other tracks. And we’re OK with it. You just stay focused and work on the task at hand always.”

The next task is Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, next Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Wallace has three career starts on the 2-mile oval, with the best coming in 2018 (20th). NASCAR did not race at Auto Club in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so Wallace has never been there with his current team.

Wallace will enter the event sitting fourth in the points standings – the highest he has ever been ranked since that 2018 Daytona 500.

“You know, we succeeded,” Wallace said. “We succeeded on all levels, but we failed at the same time. So, going through that, trying to ride that, is super tough. Maybe two days, maybe three and probably a freaking week, I’ll get over this. But California is Sunday.

“That’s the one thing that people ask me about: What motivates you? Having another chance next week to go back to Victory Lane.”

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