Who… should you be talking about after the race?
The playoffs may have the headlines right now, but two weeks into the NASCAR Cup Series title run, a playoff contender has yet to win a race. Bubba Wallace held off his car owner, Denny Hamlin, handily in the closing laps Sunday (Sept. 11) to win the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway. It’s Wallace’s second career win and the third for 23XI Racing.
When Wallace won his first race last fall at Talladega Superspeedway, he played the role of playoff spoiler, and he did it again on Sunday, beating the title contenders and shutting out the possibility of a driver clinching a second-round bid with a win this week.
Wallace blew by then-leader Alex Bowman, who led 107 laps on the day, on lap 200. Wallace then held and extended his lead through a pit cycle and retook the top spot on lap 225 when the last of the holdouts came in for tires and fuel. Hamlin took over the runner-up spot on the final run but was unable to close on Wallace enough to make an attempt at a pass.
— Bubba Wallace (@BubbaWallace) September 11, 2022
Wallace’s win locks the No. 45 into the next round in the owners’ title hunt, and that’s a big deal. It’s the finish in that battle that determines the value of a charter, as well as the year-end payout for the team. So far, Wallace has been up to the challenge there.
And don’t forget Bowman. Prior to Sunday, he had scored just two top 10s since the Coca-Cola 600 in May, and his last top five was at Dover Motor Speedway weeks before that. He’d led just 29 laps all year, though some of them were on his way to winning at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the spring.
Bowman came out swinging at Kansas, though. He had the fastest car in the first half, winning stage two and at times looking unbeatable. His fourth-place finish is his second top 10 in the playoffs and sets him 30 points above the cut line with one race left in this round. Once on the short list of drivers most likely to be eliminated next week, Bowman has picked his game up.
What… is the buzz about?
For years, it seemed like the next time we’d cover North Wilkesboro Speedway would be the day they tore the track down. Instead, this year, the track came back from the brink. After a packed house for a CARS Tour race a couple of weeks ago, it was announced this past week that the track will host the 2023 All-Star Race.
— North Wilkesboro Speedway (@NWBSpeedway) September 8, 2022
North Wilkesboro received attention during the 2020 pandemic break when Dale Earnhardt Jr. and a small group went there and prepared the surface for scanning, both for iRacing and historical preservation. That led to a virtual Cup race at the half-mile short track.
Still, that was all until spring 2021 when track owner Marcus Smith hinted there might be a future for the facility. The state of North Carolina earmarked some federal pandemic relief funds for racetracks; they suffered during the shutdown and the fans they bring are vital to the state. One of the tracks that was allocated money? Dormant North Wilkesboro.
The initial plan outlined by Smith included massive upgrades to the property (those will have to happen fast now) and possibly a Camping World Truck or Xfinity series race down the line. Smith said at the time the Cup Series wasn’t necessarily in the plan.
That all changed when the possibility of the All-Star event arose, where fans clamored for one of 1,000 chances (not a guarantee) of tickets. The relic that watched for years as people drove past on the way to Bristol or a mountain vacation will once again be their destination.
Where… did the other key players wind up?
We’re several months removed from tire woes that plagued teams at Kansas earlier this year, but pole winner Tyler Reddick got a reminder on lap 67 when a blown right rear tire sent the No. 8 hard into the wall. The fragility of the Next Gen suspension was all it took to end Reddick’s day (and possibly his title hopes). Reddick finished 35th after leading laps.
Point leader Joey Logano had great speed early but struggled later in the day, falling off the lead lap as his team’s adjustments just couldn’t keep up with the racetrack. Logano finished a lap down in 17th. His woes cost him the point lead as well, as Christopher Bell takes over.
Kevin Harvick is tied with Hamlin and Logano for the active win lead at Kansas and also entered the weekend with the best average finish among active drivers with a stellar 9.1. Unfortunately for Harvick, a brush with the wall while racing in traffic on lap 33 was all she wrote. Harvick finished 36th, dead last and sits 35 points out of a spot in the next round. He’ll have to throw a Hail Mary at Bristol Motor Speedway.
When… was the moment of truth?
For the second week in a row, the playoffs were unkind to several playoff contenders. After Harvick and Reddick had their problems, Kyle Busch went for a spin through the grass. He lost a lap but was able to continue and eventually get back onto the lead lap at the caution for the end of stage two.
Pit road problems hampered Austin Dillon, Hamlin and Daniel Suarez as well as Busch as all four received penalties for interfering with other crews. Hamlin recovered to his runner-up finish, while Dillon and Suarez rebounded to finish 14th and 10th, respectively.
The parity that has produced 18 different race winners so far in 2022 has also meant that bad luck can be shared as equally as success. That’s great for the sport overall; the more drivers have a chance to win on a weekly basis, the more fans are likely to tune in to see if their favorite can win.
It’s also good for the teams that previously weren’t really contenders to win races. Erik Jones won the Southern 500 last weekend for Petty GMS Motorsports. 23XI is improving weekly since early this summer but it’s still just a second-year organization. So is Trackhouse Racing Team. Michael McDowell is having a career year with Front Row Motorsports.
Parity works both ways, and the contenders are learning that the hard way so far.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
This Saturday (Sept. 17) is elimination day as the Cup Series heads to Bristol Motor Speedway, and while 16 playoff teams will enter, only 12 will come out. For Harvick, it’s a must-win, but several drivers aren’t feeling comfortable around the cut line. Currently, Kyle Busch, Dillon and Chase Briscoe join Harvick on the wrong side of it.
And this elimination is coming to a head at Bristol, under the lights. The Next Gen car has not raced on the asphalt surface yet, so it’s a brand-new track for teams to get a handle on under the hottest spotlight of the year so far.
Bristol isn’t known for its super-clean racing or very polite drivers. It’s going to be a knock-down, drag-out battle, one where a playoff driver might not even win it.
Only Bell is guaranteed a pass into the next round (and the No. 45 continues in its quest for the owner’s title). Buckle up. This could get bumpy for some drivers.
How… far will the ripples from a Kyle Busch move spread?
It looks like Kyle Busch’s 2022 odyssey may be drawing to a close. Richard Childress Racing appears to have emerged as the winning candidate, and whatever the decision is, expect it to be revealed Tuesday (Sept. 13).
— Kyle Busch (@KyleBusch) September 12, 2022
A move to RCR could cause more ripples if Reddick goes to the No. 8, which he intended to drive next year before moving on to 23XI Racing in 2024. That would send Reddick looking late in the game and set Silly Season back into motion.
Of course, that could also change if Kurt Busch is unable to come back from injuries suffered at Pocono Raceway earlier this year; if the elder Busch were to retire, it would open the seat for Reddick with his new team a year early. So far, though, it’s still Kurt Busch’s ride, and Reddick could be out in the cold.
A move for Busch away from Toyota also puts his Kyle Busch Motorsports team in the spotlight. KBM is currently the pipeline for young talent in the Toyota system; changing manufacturer loyalties for Busch would likely mean drastic changes for his team as well. It would also be impactful for Toyota, left without that development program. This announcement isn’t just about one driver and one racecar. It’s much bigger.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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