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Up to Speed: Is Bubba Wallace Playoff Bound in 2023?

For Bubba Wallace, the third time may be the charm. In his third season with 23XI Racing, Wallace is as close to making the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs as he’s ever been. Currently sitting 15th on the playoff grid 30 points above the cut line, he is right in the middle of the fight for the last few playoff positions. It’s a battle with which Wallace is quite familiar, having come up short of reaching the postseason the last two years. However, 2023 is shaping up to be the season when Wallace finally has his playoff breakthrough.

In the past, Wallace and the No. 23 team have been held back by slow starts and bad timing. He did score one win in each of his first two years with 23XI, but both of those victories came after the playoffs had already begun. Wallace did get the opportunity to drive teammate Kurt Busch’s playoff qualified car last year, and his win at Kansas Speedway advanced the No. 45 team to the second round of the postseason. That has been the closest Wallace has come to making a playoff run of his own.

It seems that the No. 23 team can finish the season well, but starting the season on a good note has been a problem. In 2021, the debut of 23XI, Wallace’s results were very middling to start the year. He managed to avoid serious trouble most weeks, but his first top-10 finish did not come until 19 races into the season. At that time, Wallace was 54 points outside of playoff eligibility with seven races to go. That wasn’t an insurmountable deficit, but reaching the postseason without a win would have required the No. 23 team to capitalize on its momentum. That didn’t happen. Wallace’s next top 10 was a second-place finish in the regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway, too little too late.

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When the 2022 season began, Wallace flashed his prowess at Daytona once more, finishing second in the Great American Race. Yet again, that finish was not a sign of good things to come. By the seventh race of the season, Wallace had slipped to 22nd in overall points. He made up little ground the next few weeks, and an early engine failure at Sonoma Raceway knocked him back to 25th. The No. 23 team finally started to get some momentum going during July, but by that time any shot at reaching the playoffs via points had gone out the window.

Wallace’s last good chance at a victory came at Michigan International Speedway in August. The No. 23 lined up second on a restart with 35 laps to go, but leader Kevin Harvick scooted away from everyone as Wallace battled with Joey Logano and Kyle Larson for second. Wallace ultimately won that battle but lost the war, running out of laps to catch Harvick before the checkered flag fell.

This year, Wallace has been able to find his footing earlier. The first weeks of the season were not great; the No. 23 was once again 22nd in points after the seventh race. But this time, Wallace hit a hot streak in May. Three consecutive top fives vaulted him into the playoff picture. For the first time ever, the No. 23 team may not have to play from behind during the final weeks of the regular season.

Wallace had an up-and-down race last weekend at Nashville Superspeedway. After fading early from his 10th-place starting spot, Wallace caught a break on lap 139 when teammate Tyler Reddick lost a wheel and spun out coming to pit road. Reddick’s spin occurred during a green flag pit cycle, and the No. 23 happened to be one of a few cars still on the lead lap. Able to pit under caution, Wallace restarted in the top 10 and captured some much-needed stage points at the end of stage two.

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However, a slow pit stop during the following caution dropped Wallace further back in the field once more. The race resumed on lap 193 and went green the rest of the way. The No. 23 was never able to fully recover its track position, and Wallace ended the night in 15th. That result did allow Wallace to gain a few points relative to the playoff cut line, but it still feels like he left some points on the table considering his speed during stage two.

The next nine races will test the mettle of Wallace and the No. 23 team. They will have to capitalize on upcoming events at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Michigan, and Daytona, which are all tracks where Wallace can run well and potentially score a win. However, the remainder of the regular season also includes three road courses, traditionally a weakness for Wallace. He did finish fifth at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course last year, but most of his other road races were ruined by mechanical failures and other incidents. Watkins Glen International has been especially troublesome for Wallace, who has never finished better than 23rd there in four starts.

Looking at Wallace’s season so far, it feels like a question of when he will win, rather than if. He has never had a winless season at 23XI, and he is on pace to have the statistically best season of his career. But if a win is coming, will it be soon enough to guarantee Wallace a spot in the playoffs? With Reddick’s postseason ticket already secured, 23XI’s primary goal must be to have Wallace join him. The early results suggest that this could finally be the year Wallace becomes a playoff driver.       

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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dawg

They say that pit road is the easiest place to make up positions. Conversely, it’s also the easiest spot to lose them.

And the 23 has been plagued with inconsistent pit work, & it doesn’t seem to change. I expect they rely on Gibbs for pit crews, & anytime you’re farming out your pit work, you probably aren’t getting the cream of the crop.

Until they can come up with a fix that works, they won’t be getting the results they need to take advantage of the team’s full capability.

jdquick

Watch for any NASCAR tricks this last 9 weeks. They want the face of NASCAR in the fake chase so bad that they will go out of their way to make sure he gets in.

DoninAjax

I hope he has a chance in the last event but does something incredibly stupid AGAIN and misses by one point. And then NA$CAR will find a “rule” that lets him in.

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