KANSAS CITY, Kan. — When Bubba Wallace rounded Turn 4 at Kansas Speedway, he knew he had just secured his second NASCAR Cup Series victory. It meant that he was the first driver to advance to the second round of the owners’ championship playoffs and the first Black driver in premier series history to win multiple races. But it still signified even more.
Two weeks ago, Wallace was tasked with chasing the owners’ championship in the No. 45 entry — a swap from his usual No. 23.
“I remember the conversation that Denny pulled me aside down in Florida,” Wallace recalled in a post-race interview. “And he goes, ‘Hey, we want you to drive the 45 and compete for a championship. We believe in you.’ “
To some, it seemed like a far-fetched attempt to salvage a season as fringe contenders outside the drivers’ championship. But the numbers say Wallace and the No. 45 team are performing among the best in the garage.
In the last 10 races, Wallace has finished outside the top 14 just once — and that run includes four top-five finishes, six top 10s and, of course, Sunday’s win at Kansas.
“We’re really trying to instill a really positive, one-team mentality,” said Hamlin, sitting alongside Wallace post-race in a joint press conference. “So by doing that and having an eligibility in the owners’ championship, we’re able to just pick apart and put our best pieces in each section of a race team to go out and compete at our best.
“Bubba Wallace was an easy choice for us. Especially the results that he has given us over the last two to three months.”
Wallace failed to qualify for the Round of 16 on the drivers’ side, narrowly missing out with a third-place run at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and a valiant runner-up effort at Michigan International Speedway soon after.
His focus, however, has shifted to continual growth in his most productive Cup Series season to date, all while chasing the title for 23XI Racing.
And despite the challenges, Wallace has managed to find two things evading many in the inaugural Next Gen season: consistency and confidence.
“This is my best season ever of climbing in the race car and being, like, ‘All right, pal, it’s time to go to work,'” Wallace said. “You leave it all out there and not regret any decision that you make. Look how we’ve been running. It all starts with self. If you don’t show up with confidence, then you’re not going to run very good, so you definitely have to show up with that.”
Sunday, the season-long confidence finally paid off. Rooting him on along the way? Veteran teammate Kurt Busch.
You’re my boy blue!
— Kurt Busch (@KurtBusch) September 12, 2022
“The [phone] conversation I had with him in Victory Lane was really special,” Wallace said. “He just talked about believing in self, and he always believed in me, and so I thought that was pretty special.”
His 2022 season is turning out to be special, indeed.
RELATED: Photos from Kansas weekend
In previous years, Wallace was a legitimate contender mostly at superspeedway-style tracks — just a few drops in the bucket on the diverse 36-race Cup Series schedule.
He’s hoping his electric run-of-form and dominant performance late at Kansas can begin to change that narrative.
“We’ve talked about when we go to the speedways and kind of not so much the rest of the tracks,” Wallace said. “So, I wanna start changing that. We’ve been able to show up these last two months or so, all different types of race tracks, and be talked about. That’s cool. It’s a step in the right direction, we just can’t get complacent.”
It took Wallace 151 starts between two different organizations — Richard Petty Motorsports and 23XI Racing — to earn his first premier series trophy in October 2021 at Talladega Superspeedway. Before then, running inside the top 10, and even 20 at times, was an unreasonable expectation on most weekends.
Now, not even a year later, winning has become the standard. Unquestionably.
“I think winning at this level is the hardest thing in life for us race car drivers,” Wallace said. “To be able to say we’re winners today here at Kansas through the year that we’ve had and what we’ve been able to do the last couple of months is incredible.
“I’m proud of everybody. Proud of Bootie [Barker, crew chief]. Thankful for Denny for just continuing to believe in me and make the most of every opportunity.”
Following Wallace’s journey and rise through the national series ranks, it often becomes clouded with noise from naysayers who attempt to strike down his accomplishments.
First, it was the rain at Talladega. Then his near-misses and remarkable performances were lucky or due to others’ misfortune. The team heard it, too.
But through it all, everyone in the 23XI garage knows that no one can take Sunday’s win away from them. No one can take away their trust in each other and Wallace.
It’s not something they have just discovered, either.
“We know how good we are. We knew,” Barker said. “Knew how good Bubba was, how good he has been all year. So I feel very happy for him in the fact that we took it to ’em. There’s no ‘What are you going to say? What can you throw rocks at us about this time?'”