Bubba Wallace on playoff positioning: ‘We know we have to win’

Bubba Wallace on the qualifying grid at New Hampshire Motor Speedway
Jonathan Bachman
Getty Images

LOUDON, N.H. — Six races ago, Bubba Wallace was sitting pretty, with the No. 23 team on an upward trajectory of having three consecutive top-10 finishes (four straight including a runner-up result at the non-points All-Star Race). That tied the longest streak of his career.

Over the last handful of races, however, Wallace has a best finish of 15th (Nashville Superspeedway), which includes three finishes of 25th or worse. On that list is Atlanta Motor Speedway last weekend, when he was caught up in the incident that turned out to be the caution that ended the race. Soon after Wallace’s spin with Ryan Preece, rain halted the event.

Wallace was credited with 25th position, earning just 17 points for the evening.

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With Daniel Suárez, AJ Allmendinger and Michael McDowell – all drivers running near the playoff cutline – earning top-five finishes, Wallace fell below the playoff cutline for the first time since early May after the 400-mile event at Kansas Speedway. He enters New Hampshire 17th on the playoff grid, three points below Suárez and McDowell. In the last two races, he’s lost 33 points to the bubble.

“We had a few mistakes that started off our weekend bad,” Wallace said Saturday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “I guess you could say that’s in the cards, so we don’t deserve to be in right now with the way we’re performing and executing.

“This week was a big reflection week for everybody on the [No.] 23 team on how we need to execute. Mistakes like this at this point in the season, there’s no excuse for it. Whether it’s my fault on track or the crew’s fault in preparation. We need to be better as a team moving forward to even think about playoffs.”

Reflecting on this week meant the No. 23 team needed to take a step back and look at what it was doing during that May run. Collectively, Wallace said he believes the team needed to take a breather and approach the rest of the season where it’s “beneficial for everybody.”

“One mistake affects everybody on the team,” Wallace said. “You have to be aware of everything that goes on to be competitive at this level.”

Denny Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing, said the No. 23 team has had its fair share of problems recently. He said he knows the organization needs improvement.

“They’re running OK,” Hamlin said. “Certainly, would like to see a little more performance, a little more execution on the team’s part. The team has its fair share of growing that they need to do. The drivers, as long as they do their part, then it’s up for us to make sure the team executes. They let him down in some spots, for sure. We all have to get better.”

With seven races remaining before the playoffs begin at Darlington Raceway, Wallace is poised to make a postseason run. He has yet to make the playoffs as a driver in five full-time Cup Series seasons. He raced in place of Kurt Busch last season to compete for the owner’s championship in 23XI’s No. 45 entry, and he ultimately won the second race of the playoffs at Kansas.

Should a new driver or two- not named Wallace — currently below the playoff cutline capture a checkered flag before the playoffs begin, it would throw a wrench into his plans. For that reason, he said his team needs to find Victory Lane quickly.

“We want to win,” Wallace said. “We know we have to win. We can’t point our way into a championship, so we need to win. We need to win early enough to lock ourselves in. If we can’t do that, it would be unfortunate, but we have to point our way, too. Mistakes don’t create points, so we have to eliminate mistakes to get points.”

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Some of Wallace’s competitors who he’s battling near the cutline believe that he can win, too. McDowell gained 22 points on the bubble last weekend at Atlanta and moved to the last spot currently in.

“When I look at the guys around us, I’m definitely nervous because we know Bubba has some great tracks coming up and the Toyotas have been fast,” McDowell said. “AJ is super strong on road courses; I feel strong on road courses as well. It’s hard to bet against AJ on those. If you look at the guys we’re racing, Suárez as well, he’s good at the same tracks that I’m good at.”

First up is New Hampshire, where Wallace scored 10 stage points and finished third last season. At the time, it was his first top-five effort on a non-superspeedway in over a calendar year.

The No. 23 team ranked fifth in practice on one-lap speed and qualified eighth. He doesn’t necessarily believe that the run from 2022 will carry over to this weekend.

“A little bit of a nice stat,” Wallace said of the third-place effort last year. “But it brings confidence with the weekend that we had and the speed that we had in our cars. We’re looking at redoing that and backing that up.”

Compared to this time last year, it’s been a solid improvement for Wallace, who was 178 points below the cutline entering New Hampshire last season — a deficit magnified by the Cup Series having two additional winners with provisional playoff berths at this point last year.