It has been a mostly dreadful second season at 23XI Racing for Bubba Wallace, which makes this Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway one of likely only two opportunities left to qualify for the NASCAR Playoffs.
Wallace had several reasons to think this year would be an improvement from his career-best 2021 season that featured career highs with three top-five finishes, 62 laps led, a 21st-place finish in the points standings, and his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory in the fall race at Talladega Superspeedway.
Unfortunately for him and the No. 23 team, none of that success has carried over from his debut campaign at 23XI Racing. His only top-five came in a runner-up finish in the Daytona 500. And he currently sits winless at 25th in the points standings and has led only one lap on a track that did not feature superspeedway-style racing, although that could also be his one reason for optimism this weekend.
Atlanta reconfiguration could be Bubba Wallace’s key to Victory Lane
Wallace is a superb superspeedway racer. Five of his seven career top-five finishes in the Cup Series have been at Daytona International Speedway or Talladega, including three second-place results at Daytona. His 15.7 average finishing position at those two superspeedways is the best among active drivers with at least four races on such tracks.
He could now be the biggest beneficiary of the reconfiguration Atlanta underwent during the offseason. The 1.5-mile facility transformed from a typical intermediate, D-shaped oval to a narrower, higher-banked track that now produces pack racing similar to Daytona and Talladega.
Wallace led three of the final 13 laps in the first race at the newly resurfaced Atlanta track in March before he slid to 13th in the final 10 circuits. Still, he was a factor in that race with a chance to win at the end.
For various reasons, that has not been the case at any other track this season. Wallace finished 26th or worse in three of the following four races after the Atlanta spring race, and five of his last seven races have also resulted in a finish 26th or lower.
Not all of those results are solely his fault. His engine failed nine laps into the race last month at Sonoma Raceway, and the No. 23 pit crew that 23XI Racing receives from the much larger Joe Gibbs Racing has had several notable mistakes throughout the season.
He lost a wheel at the Circuit of the Americas. Multiple pit road penalties cost Wallace a chance to contend in the spring race at Kansas Speedway. The team misunderstood the Damaged Vehicle Policy, so he could not finish the Coca-Cola 600. And a loose wheel forced him to return to pit road midway through the race at Nashville Superspeedway.
Wallace finished 10th and 12th in those events, respectively, but a team with only a select number of races to truly contend for wins does not have the margin of error to suffer setbacks on days the car has top-tier speed.
Wallace will have new pit crew members in Atlanta
Toyota and JGR have made adjustments to address the issue as the series heads into Atlanta for the second time this season. Wallace will get the front tire changer and a tire carrier from Christopher Bell’s No. 20 team.
This is potentially the most crucial race of Wallace’s season, as it is now desperation time for drivers in Wallace’s position in the points standings. Eight races remain in the regular season, but this weekend at Atlanta and the regular-season finale on August 27 at Daytona are the only superspeedway events left before the playoffs start.
Two of the final eight regular-season races are at road courses, where Wallace typically struggles. He also has only one top-10 finish since he joined 23XI Racing in 2021 at any of the tracks left in the regular season aside from Daytona.
Several winless drivers could be in a rush to win a superspeedway-style race
Other drivers outside the top 20 in points are in a similar spot in terms of a win-or-bust mentality, but most of them have shown flashes of brilliance elsewhere as well.
Michael McDowell has a career-high seven top-10s and has been a threat on road courses. Chris Buescher similarly runs well at road courses and snagged a pole award at Dover Motor Speedway. Even Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has amassed five top-10s through the first half of the season.
Brad Keselowski in 30th might be the most similar to Wallace, as he has only two top-10s but is a superspeedway ace.
Wallace faced high expectations at the start of his second year at 23XI Racing, which expanded to two cars with the addition of Kurt Busch in the No. 45 car. Most of the opportunities to meet those standards have already come and gone, which makes this weekend in Atlanta even more crucial.
Perhaps this is the weekend Wallace provides a signature moment that will keep him relevant into the playoffs.
Stats courtesy of Racing Reference