BROOKLYN, Mich. – Denny Hamlin sat in a chair on the far side of Michigan International Speedway’s media center, his left hand resting on his face in a fist, silently watching a TV mounted on a wall.
The TV was showing Bubba Wallace’s No. 23 McDonald’s Toyota as it raced around the 2-mile speedway, the final car to make a run in the second round of qualifying.
Moments after Wallace crossed the finish line, Hamlin reacted with a simple, “Damn.”
He then stood up and looked over at another TV that featured timing and scoring.
“Holy shit, that’s fast,” Hamlin observed.
Hamlin, co-owner at 23XI Racing, knew before his driver did that Wallace had just claimed his first career NASCAR Cup Series pole.
— Daniel McFadin (@danielmcfadin) August 6, 2022
Wallace blistered MIS with a top speed of 190.703 mph. He was the only driver to top 190 mph.
But as he slowed his car, Wallace was “kind of dejected.”
Met by silence over his team radio, Wallace thought he had screwed up the lap.
“I came off turn 4 on the first run, and I was like, ‘wow,’ and that’s all I said, just to kind of create some suspense for the team,” Wallace said. “And they were like, ‘Oh, what the hell?’ And I knew it was a good lap. I said, ‘great car.’ And I didn’t want to jinx it (on the final round). I didn’t want to be like, ‘oh, man, that felt like a pole run’ and it’d be for P5, right? And so I come across the line and … silence and I was like, ‘great, I just botched this lap somehow.'”
It turned out Wallace had just been tuned to the wrong channel.
The error fixed, Wallace asked his team “what did we get?”
When he was told he had won the pole, Wallace erupted with “Let’s gooo! I appreciate y’all!”
For Wallace, the pole was “a sigh of relief” for him.
“Just pumped, proud moment, proud of myself,” Wallace said.
The pole comes in Wallace’s 171st career start. It’s also the latest in a string of success for the No. 23 team, as Wallace has put together a career-best three-race streak of top-10 finishes, including a fifth last weekend on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
“Proud of my team continuing to show up and battle and give it all we got,” Wallace said. “We know that’s the obviously the goal every time you start a season, and no matter what’s thrown at you throughout the season, you got to keep showing up and putting on that face and executing. And man, we’ve been one of the best teams these last couple of weeks. I came on the radio after the first run and said ‘It’s fun to have fun,’ and it’s pretty fun right now.”
Michigan represents a key opportunity for Wallace.
He enters Sunday’s (Aug. 7) FireKeepers Casino 400 still looking for his first win of the season. With four races left in the regular season and only two playoff spots remaining to be filled, Wallace is 20th in points.
It doesn’t hurt that Wallace has won at Michigan before. In a one-off opportunity in 2017, Wallace won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at the track.
However, Wallace felt very positive about his team’s chances after a May 31-June 1 tire test at Michigan.
“I believe that with the speed that we have there’s no reason that we can’t go out and win,” Wallace said. “I told my crew after the test, I pulled them off to the side and I said, ‘I usually circle Martinsville or Daytona, Talladega as a race to win. If we don’t win this race, I’m going to be very pissed off.'”
But Goodyear made a change to the tires after the test, bring a superspeedway tire with more stagger. Was Wallace relieved the change didn’t have a significant impact on the team’s performance?
“We’re a little slower (than in the test), so it did impact the speed and the feel of it’s a little different,” Wallace said. “Once we heard about the tire change, we quickly went to work on how much we needed to change the car to tune for that and (crew chief) Bootie (Barker) and our team hit it right on the head. [The] car feels great, feels good in race trim.”
How does Wallace anticipate Sunday’s 200-lap race unfolding?
He said it was a good thing he was starting up front because “it’s gonna be tough to pass.”
“The aero sensitivity on these cars are so massive,” Wallace said. “So you have to time your passes out right, put yourself in the right spot. With the resin, it creates a little bit wider racing surface for us, but it’s still going to be a challenge. So if we can keep track position all day and win it, I’d be good with that.”
As for Hamlin, Wallace’s team owner qualified ninth in his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Hamlin said after Kurt Busch’s win at Kansas Speedway in May and Wallace’s winning speed that day, Michigan had been circled by the team as an opportunity.
“Fast ovals seem to be where our cars are pretty strong,” Hamlin said. “We’re glad to get out of road-course racing for now.”
Hamlin called Wallace’s pole run “very, very impressive.
“I’m happy what we’re working on is starting to pay off, we’re starting to see the fruits of it. … You want to see results anytime you put a lot of effort in. I think certainly we’re starting to see it with our team now.”
Hamlin still hopes Wallace finishes second to him on Sunday.
“It’s always my job to beat those guys,” Hamlin said of the two cars he owns. “They’re going to have to beat us if they want to win.”
About the author
Daniel McFadin is a 10-year veteran of the NASCAR media corp. He wrote for NBC Sports from 2015 to October 2020. He currently works full time for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and is lead reporter and an editor for Frontstretch. He is also host of the NASCAR podcast "Dropping the Hammer with Daniel McFadin" presented by Democrat-Gazette.
You can email him at email@example.com.
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