Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: Which Bubble Driver Must Make the Playoffs?

Here we are, just two weeks away from knowing which 16 drivers will battle for a title in this year’s NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

Currently, Bubba Wallace holds the final playoff position after his advantage was slashed in half between Michael McDowell‘s Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course win and Daniel Suarez‘s strong performance there. Suarez sits 28 points behind Wallace, while Ty Gibbs is 49 points out.

Beyond them, it is all but a must-win scenario for everyone else, which carries significant names such as Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman.

Nearly a decade into the current playoff format, NASCAR’s postseason has achieved what it was created to do: create drama and entertainment. In the process, it has also produced an aspect that is no stranger to any job or athlete: performance evaluations.

Yes, professional athletes and leaders have these, too. In NASCAR, we have seen drivers and crew chiefs both face increased scrutiny when performance does not match expectations year after year.

With the playoffs, one could argue that the microscopic focus has increased. After all, there are 16 spots up for grabs, nearly half of the full-time field.

The bubble battle is unique this year, featuring drivers looking to make it for the first time, a former champion and guys who were in a year ago. In fact, six drivers who were in the 2022 playoffs are on the outside looking in. If that holds, it would be the largest turnover from the previous year under the current system.

No matter who wins over the next two weeks, some notable names will be missing from the title-contending group. What is at stake if they do miss, and who needs to make it the most?

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While Hendrick would be disappointed in not landing all four drivers in the playoffs, it has been an unprecedented season. Both Elliott and Bowman missed several races with injuries suffered in outside ventures, and those complications definitely affected them in their returns.

Elliott is a former champion, has made the Championship 4 three consecutive seasons and is competing for wins again after a runner-up finish at Indianapolis. If anything, a playoff absence would affect NASCAR more, given Elliott is its Most Popular Driver.

At one time this season, Bowman led the series in points, top 10s and average finish, and he has nearly returned to form over the past four weeks in the speed department.

As disheartening as potentially missing the playoffs would be for the duo, their career credibility is not hinging on making the playoffs this season, given the circumstances.

Gibbs currently sits in front of the HMS pair. The rookie has shown steady improvement in his freshman campaign, avoiding the controversy that surrounded him in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and displaying flashes of stardom. It would be surprising to be talking about him in the same light a year from now.

The two drivers who need to make the playoffs the most sit immediately on either side of the cut line: Wallace and Suarez.

Both drivers have been promoted by the sport for attracting potential new audiences. They were even featured in one of NASCAR’s commercials celebrating its 75th anniversary.

They also happen to be on two of NASCAR’s newest and most innovative teams in 23XI Racing (Wallace) and Trackhouse Racing (Suarez). Both teams have made immediate waves in the garage and put the ownership side of the sport in a new spotlight.

Despite controversy, Wallace has brought more noise than most drivers the past couple of years. But quite frankly, he isn’t backing it up.

Wallace deserves some slack for the first three seasons with Richard Petty Motorsports. RPM was nowhere near being a playoff team, struggling to even put quality parts on the car.

However, this isn’t RPM anymore. At 23XI, Wallace has TRD support, an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, major sponsors and invested leadership directed by co-owner Denny Hamlin.

2021 was an expected season of growing pains for Wallace, who only landed three top 10s — though he did earn his first victory in a rain-shortened Talladega Superspeedway race, raising optimism. In 2022, the team found itself in a hole into the summer, maximized by mistakes throughout the team. When Wallace went on a run of four straight top 10s toward the end of the regular season, it was too little, too late.

Thanks to a victory by Kurt Busch, the team’s No. 45 qualified for the owner’s playoffs, prompting 23XI to swap Wallace into the ride since Busch could not compete with a concussion. In the second race of the playoffs, he not only won at Kansas Speedway, he also made a statement in dominating fashion.

With another win under its belt, the No. 23 group looked poised to quickly lock a playoff spot this season.

Twenty-four races in, here we are. Wallace has not won and is one new victor away from being out of the playoffs.

There is no question that the 29-year-old has improved this season. The team has shown more speed at a wider variety of tracks, and Wallace is on pace for career highs in top fives, top 10s and average finish. But the numbers still aren’t great.

To be clear, Wallace signed a multi-year contract extension in 2022, and he brings a lot of backing. Still, his teammate Tyler Reddick is locked into the playoffs, and Busch would have been last year if it wasn’t for the concussion. If a new winner occurs at Watkins Glen International or Daytona International Speedway, or Suarez is able to outpoint Wallace, what would 23XI’s leadership think about another playoff absence from its foundational driver?

Speaking of Suarez, his stakes are just as high, if not higher. His Trackhouse teammate Ross Chastain made the Championship 4 in his first season with the team and already has a win in 2023. A week after Chastain’s Nashville Superspeedway triumph, Shane van Gisbergen took the NASCAR world by storm by winning the Chicago street course. Meanwhile, Suarez is staring down playoff elimination.

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Unlike Wallace, Suarez has spent most of his career at high-level teams such as Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and now Trackhouse. In 239 Cup starts, he has one win. Given that Chastain already has three in a little over a year, pressure has to be rising for the No. 99 team.

Suarez had a solid 2022 campaign, scoring a career-high 13 top 10s and making the Round of 12. However, that was his lone playoff appearance to this point. If he can’t win or outpoint Wallace over the next two weeks, a second playoff trip won’t happen this year.

It hasn’t been an underwhelming performance for the Monterrey, Mexico, native. He has shown flashes of consistency and speed at times, just missing out on a couple of additional wins, including last weekend in Indianapolis. He also signed a multi-year extension this season. But for a team determined to be a perennial title contender, playoff misses can’t help those efforts.

In both cases, it could prompt a change in leadership atop the pit box or team structure. And as young drivers still, there is always room to grow.

When the green flag waves on the playoffs in three weeks, a notable name will not be carrying the yellow playoff banner. And whoever it is, it will certainly ratchet up the expectations for next season.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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DoninAjax

Why does that pose look loke he is thinking “Why are you talking to me? Don’t you know who I think I am?”

Echo

He’s trying to remember which foot is for the gas.

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