Typically, “Game 7” is used in reference to a do-or-die contest in a sports league’s postseason already in progress.
But for a handful of drivers heading to Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET, USA Network, NBC Sports App, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), the phrase should be in the minds of those needing a win to clinch a playoff berth.
No driver is arguably more in need to turn his season around than Bubba Wallace.
To say the least, it’s not the year the 28-year-old or 23XI Racing expected from the second-year No. 23 Toyota team.
Halfway through the 2022 season, Wallace has only compiled two top-10 finishes with his lone top-five result coming at the season-opening Daytona 500. In 10 of the 18 races this year, he’s finished outside the top 20.
Wallace’s average finish of 22.0 ranks 27th among full-timers, below that of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (21.4), Ty Dillon (21.2) and Justin Haley (18.9). Dillon returned to the Cup Series full-time with the newly-merged Petty GMS Racing while Haley is running his first full Cup season with Kaulig Racing.
The results trend is still going in the wrong direction for Wallace, as he’s DNF’d in four of the last seven races.
Combined with the poor finishes, there have been some hiccups with his pit crew.
Slow stops, tire issues and penalties have thwarted great runs for the No. 23 team at times and while Wallace recovered with a top 10 at Kansas Speedway and a 12th-place run at Nashville Superspeedway, it didn’t stop him from lashing out at the team over his radio after in-race mistakes.
The recent pit-crew criticisms have led to a swap of crew members between Wallace and Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell.
This is Wallace’s fifth full year in the Cup Series and he’s yet to break through into the postseason. However, with his track record at superspeedways, Sunday provides Wallace with a golden opportunity to turn a so-far frustrating season into a fresh slate for the second half and playoff push.
It’s no secret that Wallace has a knack for running well on superspeedways.
Below is a breakdown of his superspeedway history.
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Wallace owns two runner-up finishes in the Daytona 500 and was second to Ryan Blaney in last year’s regular-season finale at Daytona. Atlanta’s re-profiled 1.54-mile layout will use the same superspeedway rules configuration as the larger ovals at Daytona and Talladega.
While there’s not a large sample size on the reconfigured Atlanta oval, Wallace should be aggressive in working his way to the front of the pack as he spent more than two-thirds of the spring race inside the top 15, according to NASCAR’s loop data.
The reason why Wallace should view Sunday as a “do-or-die” for his playoff hopes is that the stretch of tracks coming up before the regular-season finale at Daytona don’t favor him, to put it kindly.
Two road courses are among the next six races after Atlanta — a style of track where Wallace has yet to find comfort.
Here is a breakdown of Wallace’s history at the six races following Atlanta.
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Of the eight races Wallace has participated in at Richmond, he’s only finished on the lead lap once and that came in the fall of 2019 where he scored his best finish at the 0.75-mile oval of 12th.
A winless Sunday wouldn’t be a complete loss of hope for the No. 23 team with several races still before Daytona closes out the regular season, but time is running out for Wallace if he and his team have a goal of reaching the playoffs. Now might be his best time to strike.
According to BetMGM, Wallace is a popular pick to win Atlanta with 6.8% of the handle, which is fourth-highest among all drivers.
Wallace enters Sunday 25th in the points standings — 177 points below the playoff cutline.