Back to News

March 31, 2024

Analysis: Bubba Pollard’s Xfinity debut at Richmond was a win for the driver, the short-track world and racing as a whole

RICHMOND, Va. — Bubba Pollard and Parker Kligerman spent a significant portion of Saturday’s ToyotaCare 250 jostling for position on Richmond Raceway’s 0.75-mile oval. At one point, Kligerman’s aggression involved enough contact to move Pollard out of his groove and pass him. “That’s just Parker Kligerman,” said spotter TJ Majors to what he presumed was an angered driver.

After some charged-up competition over the course of 250 laps, Kligerman approached Pollard on pit road. It was all smiles.

Kligerman told Pollard he loved racing with him. He apologized for that bump. Pollard accepted and noted how much fun he had making his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut.

In a race that featured one driver hurling a bumper cover at another after a crash, Pollard’s cordial demeanor was crucial not just to avoid confrontation with rivals on a short track. He needed that composure to patiently and methodically work his way through a 38-car field after starting 37th.

His accomplishing that feat to the tune of a sixth-place finish was one of many factors that made the 37-year-old Super Late Model racing legend’s Xfinity Series debut a success.

RELATED: Chandler Smith wins at Richmond

Bubba Pollard
(Photo: Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

Pollard was the star of the show Saturday despite his status as a first-timer. The largest crowd of friends, family and media of any cluster on pit road before the race was the one congregating around the No. 88 Rheem Chevrolet. The announcement of his name over the facility’s speakers during driver intros elicited one of the bigger roars from the fans on hand.

Everybody was curious to see how a driver who’s won so many marquee races and championships on short tracks around the country would handle a national stage and an environment foreign to him — especially after he was fastest in practice, his first session in an Xfinity Series car. Adding to the intrigue was the fact that he followed that blazing session with a clunker in qualifying; he overdrove Turns 1-2 and botched his lap.

“I hope I made them proud,” Pollard said after the race when asked about his representation of the short-track racing community. Then he smiled. “I disappointed them in qualifying. I know some of them were laughing at me. I was laughing at myself.”

Bubba Pollard
Bubba Pollard celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the ASA STARS National Tour ECMD 150 at North Wilkesboro Speedway on May 17, 2023. (Photo: Adam Fenwick/NASCAR)

The sentiment regarding Pollard’s Xfinity Series debut was that he earned it. He’s won many of the biggest Super Late Model races in the country: the Oxford 250 at Oxford Plains Speedway, the Rattler 250 at South Alabama Speedway, the Winter Showdown at Kevin Harvick’s Kern Raceway, the SpeedFest 200 at Cordele Motor Speedway, the Slinger Nationals at Slinger Super Speedway and the All American 400 at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, just to name a few. He’s also the 2014 ASA Southern Super Series champion.

His accolades are why Dale Earnhardt Jr. and sponsor Rheem made the effort to get Pollard in a JR Motorsports car at a track that suited his skills. The collaboration was a “you-love-to-see-it” moment for a racing community that appreciates when drivers like Pollard receive such an opportunity.

“I enjoy seeing the guys who have worked so so hard and have run so well over the years in Late Model racing get those chances,” said two-time Cup Series champion Kyle Busch. “I’m thankful of Junior for doing that. It takes money obviously to go to the race track. A lot of those guys use that money to go race their own cars and their programs and don’t spend it on a NASCAR program. I think for the betterment of our sport, it’s cool to see guys like that get a shot.”

Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Cup Series champion, echoed Busch’s sentiment: “I thought the opportunity was well earned. Dale has some privileges that not all of us enjoy with the ability to be able to do things like that, having partners that allow him to do that. He did it for me.

“Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. At the end of the day, I think it’s good for everybody.”

Josh Berry is another driver who’s benefitted from the connective tissue Earnhardt provides between late model racing and NASCAR’s national series. Berry drove Earnhardt’s Late Model Stock Car to the 2020 NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series national championship before he advanced to the Xfinity Series with JR Motorsports. Now, of course, he competes full-time in the Cup Series for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Their paths were and are different, but Berry is one of the few who can understand the difficult test placed before Pollard on Saturday. Berry was only somewhat surprised to see Pollard go fastest in his first Xfinity Series practice, and he knew Pollard would be bombarded with advice on how to navigate the situation.

In Berry’s mind, the most important thing for Bubba Pollard at Richmond was to just be Bubba Pollard.

“Hopefully he just enjoys it more than anything,” he said. “I think Bubba’s a great racer.”

Bubba Pollard
(Photo: Tadd Haislop/NASCAR)

Toward the end of the first stage Saturday, Pollard finally felt comfortable in the Xfinity car. Toward the end of the second stage, he told his team he was starting to have fun.

A slow pit stop ahead of the final stage cost Pollard a few positions, but he spent the final 100 laps of the race doing what he does best: managing his tires on an abrasive surface and displaying patience. As he noted after the race, at Richmond, “slow is fast.”

As the race wound down with a long green-flag run, Pollard was blowing by his competition. Sixth was the highest position he had time to reach in a strung-out field.

That was more than enough for Pollard to be greeted by a hoard of media when he climbed out of his car.

“It means a lot,” Pollard said of the run. “Because there are a lot of great race car drivers out there that people never see. I’m thankful for the opportunity that Rheem and Dale Jr. gave me. It’s special to me and my family, just everyone. Hopefully we can do it again.”

Pollard as of now has no more NASCAR national series events on his schedule, but he’s hopeful such a debut might prompt a partner to give him another shot.

Regardless, he’ll always have the moments that made Saturday at Richmond one of the best days of his career, from posing with his family for pre-race photos to celebrating his finish with super fan TJ and everything in between. He did what Berry said he needed to do. More than anything, he enjoyed it.

He did all of it — Kligerman incident included — with a smile.