Since placing second in this year’s Daytona 500, high hopes and aspirations have turned into frustration.
Bubba Wallace’s difficulties continued Sunday in Richmond, as he finished 26th and three laps off the lead lap in a field of 37 drivers. Here’s Austin Dickey’s initial critique, which was made before Sunday’s race but clearly still holds true after Wallace and the 23XI squad had yet another dismal finish.
Bubba Wallace and the 23XI racing team had high hopes and even bigger expectations for the 2022 season. The team, however, has failed to finish races this season following a near second-place finish in the Daytona 500 and is currently 20th in the standings.
Consider this: In his five starts since Daytona, Wallace has finished 19th, 25th, 22nd, 13th, and a season-low 38th (last Sunday at Circuit of the Americas).
Simultaneously, he has fallen from fourth place in the driver standings after the 500 to twentieth place coming into Sunday’s race at Richmond.
The early-season troubles seem to originate from a new type of difficulty each week. Despite running closer to the front than last year, Wallace has been unable to parlay a strong effort into a strong finish so far this season.
Wallace has been in the top 15 for the majority of the day several times this year, only to be knocked out of contention for a strong finish due to misfortune.
— Noah Lewis (NASCAR) (@Noah_Lewis1) April 2, 2022
Wallace had been running in the top ten all day in Las Vegas until he was caught up in Erik Jones’ late-race collision, which forced overtime. Officials threw the caution just a fraction too late, and Wallace slipped back up the track at full speed towards Jones.
Wallace took evasive action and pulled left just in time to avoid Jones’ whirling automobile. Unfortunately, he was unable to slow down in time to avoid hitting the tire barrier on the inside wall, and his car finished in a disappointing 25th place.
Wallace’s talents seemed ideal for the speedway-style track reconfiguration in Atlanta. He led the entire race and even took the white flag in second place, ready to challenge William Byron for the victory.
Wallace, on the other hand, got hung out to dry as he made a move into Turn 1 and lost all of his momenta. Wallace moved through the pack like a rock until getting hooked up in a crash as the race approached the checkers and finished 13th.
If there is a silver lining, it is that the quality runs have demonstrated that the 23XI squad, which is co-owned by Michael Jordan and Denn Hamlin, is making the necessary steps toward becoming a title contender. However, the team still has a lot of room for improvement.
Wallace only managed to run mid-pack in the two races where he appeared to have an uneventful day, finishing 19th at Auto Club and 22nd at Phoenix. Even though these finishes are very common during the long NASCAR Cup Series season, they just add to Wallace’s sense of urgency.
The margin for error is diminishing and the requirement for a breakthrough performance is growing by the week since Wallace failed to capitalize on races where the team brought a fast car to the track.
Wallace’s day was cut short at Circuit of the Americas this past weekend due to a loose wheel. Wallace finished the race in a dismal 38th place, with the majority of the competitors still going.
To make matters worse, due to the loose wheel, crew chief Bootie Barker and two other crew members were all suspended for four races, leaving him with interim crew chief Dave Rogers to try to salvage his season.
“All ya can do is chuckle,” Wallace tweeted after the race, expressing his disappointment. Ha.”
Bubba Wallace describes what he and his team learned about the wheels last week as he said the wheel felt more like a flat spot than a loose wheel before it came off at COTA. pic.twitter.com/C974yKvQPB
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) April 2, 2022
Wallace’s one-word statement, coming from a man known for speaking his opinion, says a lot about his disappointments this season. Given Toyota’s troubles this season across the board — with Martin Truex Jr. (7th) the lone Toyota driver in the top 10 heading into Sunday’s race at Richmond — there is a lot of hope that Wallace can still turn things around.
However, 23XI is still a young team, and it may take some time for them to start hitting all of their targets consistently. In contrast, veteran colleague Kurt Busch is off to a much stronger start in his first season with the organization, sitting 13th in the driver standings heading into Richmond.
Keep an eye out for Wallace and his 23XI at the season’s first short track race this weekend. With two more short tracks to follow this weekend — Martinsville and then the dirt race at Bristol — Sunday’s race might provide Wallace with the boost he needs.
In any case, Wallace is under pressure to live up to the enormous expectations that come with the spotlight he commands, and supporters are anxiously watching to see if he can turn things around.