1. The Difference Between a Winner and a Champion, Part I
Bubba Wallace is very much still alive in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. He’s below the cut line right now, sure, but only by two points. The next race is at Talladega Superspeedway, a track rightfully known for its unpredictable nature and random outbreaks of chaos, but Wallace is an excellent superspeedway racer.
He did finish third at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday (Sept. 24), not 33rd. There’s absolutely no reason for him and the No. 23 team to panic.
But man, does Texas feel like a missed opportunity.
It isn’t all that often that a Cup driver has the fastest car in qualifying (Wallace scored only his second career pole) and on race day (he led the most laps in any Cup start he’s made to date). Even when they do, that doesn’t mean they’re always around with a chance to win at the end.
All of those things were true for Wallace at Texas, but one wrong decision on a restart cost him a chance to win. It isn’t something Wallace needs to beat himself up over, even though it’s very on brand for him to do so.
It’s just that these are the types of opportunities Wallace will need to learn to capitalize on if he wants to make the next step in his career. In team sports, there’s an adage that great teams know how to close out games. Great racers know how to seal the deal when it’s there for the taking.
Wallace is already a winner. He’s won Cup Series races and made the postseason. To be a champion, however, means winning in situations he was just in.
2. The Difference Between a Winner and a Champion, Part II
In contrast to Wallace, Kyle Larson needs no lessons on what it takes to take the Cup Series crown. Been there, done that.
That makes his Texas fate all that much more perplexing. Larson had plenty of speed Sunday and certainly appeared to be the one who would be in victory lane if Wallace wasn’t.
Then late in the race, this happened.
This incident, as well as Larson’s seeming lack of explanation for how it happened, is pretty startling for a racer of his caliber. It’s just a little … sloppy, for lack of a more precise word, for one of the best wheelmen of his generation.
Larson, at least, is still on the right side of the cut line. His team knows he’s a threat to win at a wide range of tracks, and it would be foolish to count him out of making the Championship 4.
Still, throwing away potential wins can come back to bite even teams that know what it takes to win it all — and it’s not like the No. 5 team has run roughshod over the field all season long. Larson and his bunch better hope this wasn’t a win they should have banked to ensure they move on.
3. Is This Your (Regular Season) King?
With all due respect to Ryan Coogler for twisting one of the most memorable lines from Black Panther just to use as a joke, it definitely applies to Martin Truex Jr. right now.
Truex (barely) managed to escape making the wrong kind of history as the first regular season champion to be eliminated in the Round of 16. So surely, the No. 19 team would respond and show the form that got them the top spot entering the postseason in the first place, right?
Nope. Truex finished Texas in uninspiring fashion, coming home 17th. Since Daytona International Speedway, the final regular season race, Truex hasn’t managed even one top-15 result, with an average finish of 22.8.
In a word, yikes.
Truex is in no real danger of being eliminated during this round, but only because of NASCAR’s silly rule about playoff points following drivers through during each round. On merit alone, Truex should be last right now, or darn close.
There’s still time for this team to pull it together and make a run at Phoenix Raceway. The Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, in particular, is a place the No. 19 could shine.
What if they don’t, though? A strong argument could be made that seeing Truex make the Round of 8 just to limp through three more races and finish seventh or eighth would be even worse than just bowing out in the first round.
And any way you look at it, that’s just sad.
4. At Least Chase Briscoe and Ryan Preece Have Senses of Humor
Speaking of sad, that’s an apt descriptor for pretty much all of this 2023 Cup campaign for Stewart-Haas Racing. While there was some hope for optimism for Kevin Harvick‘s farewell season going in, it quickly faded during week after week of winless drudgery.
In case you missed it, SHR unveiled some great sponsors for the two drivers at Talladega.
Talladega Nights in real life? Yes, please!
Sure, it’s not going to make up for what has been a thoroughly forgettable 2023 season, and “Preece and Chase” isn’t quite as catchy as “Shake and Bake.”
But it is fun, and heaven knows SHR hasn’t had much of that this year.
5. OK, But Who Is in the Most Trouble at Talladega?
Everyone behind Truex is in some jeopardy heading to Talladega, where it will be the opposite of the adage about regular season races or games: You can’t win the championship next week, but you might lose your chance at winning one.
So who should be the most concerned? Not Ross Chastain. Though his team has clearly backslid a bit in 2023, he just won at Talladega last season. Not Brad Keselowski either, as he has a track record of success there.
By process of elimination, that leaves us with Tyler Reddick. He’s had some success at Talladega a few years back, finishing seventh twice.
More recently, however, his luck hasn’t been good at all. His last four Talladega finishes: 16th, 28th and 39th twice.
Reddick should have speed, but between his recent bad form there and the lack of other Toyotas to work with compared to Chevrolet and Ford, it would be understandable if he and his team are a little apprehensive this week.
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