The playoff field has tightened once again in the NASCAR Cup Series. With three races left in the regular season, time is running out for postseason hopefuls to secure their spots. And of the teams whose playoff futures have not yet been decided, there may be no organization in a more precarious place than 23XI Racing.
23XI began competing last year amid enormous fanfare and high expectations. Co-owners Michael Jordan and Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin started the team in no small part to provide an opportunity for Bubba Wallace to race for Cup Series wins. Although the organization went through some growing pains in 2021, Wallace made good on the opportunity by scoring his first career Cup win at Talladega Superspeedway. Unfortunately for Wallace, the team had not been able to qualify for the playoffs earlier that year.
The 2022 season for 23XI Racing brought a second car, driven by Kurt Busch. It also brought more of the same growing pains from 2021, this time for both drivers. Busch had an up-and-down start to the season but scored a victory at Kansas Speedway in May, giving him priority for the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Wallace nearly earned his second career victory in February’s Daytona 500, losing to Austin Cindric by no more than a bumper. On other occasions, Wallace has had speed roughly equal to Busch’s, especially at the intermediate ovals. But a series of pit road mistakes and strategy backfires have marred Wallace and the No. 23 team’s consistency. After just a few races this year, it was clear he would need to win in order to reach the playoffs.
Two weeks ago, at Pocono Raceway, 23XI Racing was dealt another difficult blow. Following a crash in qualifying, Busch was not medically cleared to race after experiencing concussion-like symptoms. He hasn’t been able to compete since then and has fallen to 15th on the playoff grid, the last driver qualified by race wins.
Wallace, on the other hand, has been on a hot streak. A third at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, eighth at Pocono, and fifth at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course accounted for three of Wallace’s five top-10 finishes before heading to Michigan International Speedway.
When Wallace won the pole on Saturday (Aug. 6), it looked like he would have a great shot at victory number two. Wallace’s pole, the first of his career, was a bit of a surprise. Michigan has been strictly the domain of Ford over the last few years, winning the previous seven Cup races there.
By comparison, Matt Kenseth’s 2015 victory is Toyota’s only Michigan win in the last 10 years. But the Toyotas as a group were fast in both practice and qualifying, plus Wallace has experience with winning at this track: he scored a victory in the Camping World Truck Series in 2017 (albeit one that was encumbered due to a post-race infraction.)
Heading into the race, the speed of the Toyotas, and Wallace’s hot streak, suggested both 23XI Racing drivers could be 2022 winners by the end of the day.
However, Sunday ended with another near miss for Wallace. Restarting up front with 35 laps to go, Wallace got tangled up battling with Kyle Larson and Joey Logano, allowing Kevin Harvick to break away from the pack. Wallace eventually got past Logano to secure second place, but by that time, Harvick had stretched his lead out to more than four seconds.
With too few laps for the No. 23 to make up any significant time, Harvick’s No. 4 cruised to the win, his sixth at Michigan and first Cup victory in nearly two years. With Harvick, and Ford, conquering Michigan once more, Wallace had to settle for second.
That left him overcome with emotion on pit road, eventually composing himself for an interview with NBC Sports’ Parker Kligerman.
(I’m) replaying everything I could have done (differently),” Wallace said after the race. “Took the top there on the restart. Thought I could hang with the No. 4, and just got to racing the No. 5 and the No. 22. The No. 22 did a good job of getting another Ford contract, helping a Ford win.
“Just all in all an incredible weekend. Appreciate my team. Wish we could have got Toyota in victory lane. Wish we could have got McDonald’s back in victory lane. She was fast all week, man. I’ll wear this one on my heart for a while. I failed everybody.”
Oftentimes, Wallace is his own toughest critic. In a sport where one driver wins and over 30 lose each week, it is hard to consider the type of performance that the No. 23 team had on Sunday a real failure, even if it did not result in a win. Yet Wallace clearly knows an opportunity was lost, leaving 23XI Racing pushed to the brink of playoff elimination.
Harvick is the 15th driver to win a race in 2022. That is a record for this point in the season for the elimination-style playoff years. Only a maximum of one driver can now qualify for the postseason on points. Right now, that spot currently belongs to Ryan Blaney, who is 235 points ahead of Wallace and second in the overall standings. Clearly, nothing less than a win will get the No. 23 team to the playoffs now.
Complicating matters is Busch’s situation. If Wallace were to win one of the next two races, he would push Busch down to the playoff bubble as the lowest winner in overall points. Another new winner before the playoffs begin could then knock the No. 45 team out of the postseason if that new winner is higher in points than Busch. So a Wallace victory still might not guarantee both 23XI drivers reach the playoffs.
The next three weeks are going to be a test for 23XI Racing, unlike anything the organization has faced in its short history. Wallace has never finished inside the top 10 at either of the next two tracks, Richmond Raceway and Watkins Glen International. A victory at Daytona, where he has four top fives including three second-place finishes, may be his only chance.
As for Busch, his health must come first, but it is still expected he will return to the No. 45 car later this year, potentially before the playoffs begin. Yet even if Busch does make the postseason, will he be able to compete for wins and make a championship run after such an extended time outside the car? Or will the No. 45 simply be one of the cars that fills out the playoff grid?
Right now is where we find out what 23XI Racing is made of as an organization. Can Wallace, Busch, and their teams put the setbacks of 2022 behind them and make the playoffs? If so, it will be the best indication yet 23XI has what it takes to be a regular contender for wins, and perhaps even championships, as they continue their development within the Cup Series.
About the author
Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.
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