Bubba Wallace determined to shake COTA heartache, build back confidence

Bubba Wallace waves to the crowd during driver introductions at the Circuit of The Americas
Logan Riely
Getty Images

RICHMOND, Va. – Bubba Wallace was downcast after an early exit to last Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Circuit of The Americas. He had overcooked one of the road course’s 20 corners and barreled into a pair of other drivers, marking the second straight weekend with a miscue that led to contact. He completed just 10 of the 75 laps.

Wallace was critical of himself in his brief post-race interview, chalking up the incident to what he called a “rookie mistake” and going so far to suggest that he needed to be replaced. It’s led to a week of reflection heading into the next stop on the Cup Series schedule, this Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM) here at Richmond Raceway.

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Wallace’s season thus far has been a jumble of results, with three DNFs through six races. The highlight was a fourth-place charge at Las Vegas in March, but his last two efforts were both crash-related finishes outside the top 25 – 27th at Atlanta, 37th at COTA. This week, Wallace said he made an extra effort to rededicate himself to his work ethic, noting that physical health and mental health go hand in hand. The support from his team had also helped pick up his spirits.

“All positive, all uplifting for sure,” Wallace said of the messages from his 23XI Racing colleagues back at the shop. “You know, I questioned myself, sitting on the plane or sitting in the car or waiting to get on the plane of like, why am I in this headspace right now after coming into this year with the most confidence I ever had. And I think I realized, I was solely riding on confidence, you know, not putting the work effort into being where I wanted to be. We put a lot of effort going into COTA, but just from the race before that, you’re just kind of riding on confidence. And, you know, we’ve kind of had an up-and-down start to the year. But realizing like, I gotta work hard, I gotta be a better person.

“I think the text I got from my mom as well, if you want something to change, you’ve got to change yourself. And so finally that stuck with me. Usually I’m like, ‘Thanks, Mom.’ But there’s a lot of unanswered texts that I had, a lot of unanswered phone calls that I had, but I read every single one, listened to all the voicemails, and I appreciate them. But I took a lot of moments, a lot of time to self-reflect and basically, in short, need to get my ass in shape and work out, eat better, just do things better. And I feel good, feel back to where I was to start the year.”

Wallace explained his misstep from last week, where his No. 23 Toyota careened into the Chevrolets of Kyle Larson and Erik Jones entering the Turn 12 left-hander at the 3.41-mile course. He was following the No. 1 Chevrolet of Ross Chastain, a former COTA winner, when he made a move outside the racing line. By the time Wallace tucked back in, he’d lost his point of reference for slowing the car to make the corner. The collision that followed was reminiscent of Larson’s Turn 1 crash with Ty Dillon last year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

“So I got a run on Ross out of (Turn) 11, and I had this conversation with myself,” Wallace said. “I was like, ‘Ross is pretty good at these places. Don’t overdrive the corner and blow through it, right?’ And so I get three-quarters of the way down the straightaway, and I poke out to see like where we’re at, because I’m kind of fixated. That was my problem, I got fixated on Ross’ car. But I was like, we’re close to the braking marker, I believe, and as soon as I got back in line, he brakes and I was like, oh s—. I’m gonna clean him out.

“So I turned left, and when I did that the way our cars are set up, you’re on the right-rear shocks so hard it loaded and it locked up the rears, and then next thing you know, I looked like Larson at Indy. It’s just, it was just gone. And I piled into Larson, piled into the 43, just all trying not to wreck the 1 car. In short, I should have done that because a lot of people would have been happy with me for wrecking the 1.”

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Wallace laughed at the thought of his joke, one that 23XI team co-owner Denny Hamlin – given his history of run-ins with Chastain – might have appreciated. But even with a rough start to the 2023 campaign, Hamlin has remained a staunch supporter in Wallace’s corner, providing words of encouragement as he lauded his recent improvement at road racing.

“When you look at it, his road-course skills took a giant leap in the course of a year,” Hamlin said, noticing how Wallace kept pace with teammate and eventual race winner Tyler Reddick leading up to the event. “They were 1-2 in practice for the bulk of it. He just made a mistake and is just beating himself up. That’s how emotional he is, but he also can really quickly pivot into using it as motivation to get better. And we saw over the last 12 months, he’s used that motivation and he has gotten better. My job is just to pat Bubba on the back and say we all screw up, and we’ve all made big, big mistakes. It’s just when it happens a couple of weeks in a row, as a driver, you really take it hard, but he’ll get over it with a good run.”