Bubba Wallace and 23XI must prove prowess away from Super Speedways

Bubba Wallace (Photo: Getty Images)

In October of 2021 at Talladega Super Speedway, Bubba Wallace made history when he became the first African-American driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race since Wendell Scott triumphed in the 1964 Jacksonville 200. On Sunday, the driver of the No. 23 Toyota came up just short of making even more history when he was just edged at the finish line by Austin Cindric in the 64th running of the Daytona 500.

It was the second time Wallace had finished in the runner-up position in ‘The Great American Race’ after he followed Austin Dillon to the checkered flag in the 2018 edition of that event.

Wallace is, without question, one of the top drivers on the two massive Super Speedways used by NASCAR. Of the seven top-five results the 28-year-old driver has achieved in his career, five have come at the Daytona International Speedway and the Talladega Super Speedway. Of the drivers with at least 10 starts at Daytona, the Mobile, Alabama driver’s average finish of 12.5 is best among active participants.

Considering that his other two top-fives efforts came at Pocono Raceway and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway(oval), it is apparent that Wallace has never earned a top-five finish on a track smaller than 2.5 miles in length.

While it is certainly beneficial to be good at NASCAR’s two pack-racing tracks, it is important to note that the races held on them make up just four of 36 total points-paying events. Yes, a win in one of the three races held on those tracks before the NASCAR Playoffs begin would likely allow a driver a shot at a championship. But to truly be considered a serious contender for the Cup Series title, drivers and teams must prove their worth on the tracks that make up the other 32 races on the schedule.

Beginning this weekend with the ‘Wise Power 400’ at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, the NASCAR Cup Series will contest three consecutive races on its so-called ‘West Coast Swing’ with events also being held at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the Phoenix Raceway.  Those tracks offer a variety of shapes and sizes with Auto Club being a 2-mile D-shaped oval, Las Vegas a 1.5-mile D-shaped oval, and Phoenix a 1-mile triangular oval.

This group of races will test not only the drivers and their ability to adapt but also the teams and their level of preparedness during this time of shortages as they will be away from their shops for an extended period of time. 23XI, like every other operation, will have much work to do with this new car and these unusual circumstances.

While Wallace has shown great prowess on the two bigger tracks, his performance to date at the next three venues on the schedule are less than inspiring. His average finishing position over the course of his career at each is in the twenties with Auto Club being worst with an average of 25.7 in three Cup Series starts there.

Austin Cindric(2) just edged Bubba Wallace(23) at the finish of the Daytona 500 (Photo: Getty Images)

In two starts last season at Las Vegas in his first year driving for the Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan co-owned 23XI Racing team, Wallace earned finishes of 28th and 16th in the Nevada desert. Results of 16th and 39th were the product of the two races entered at Phoenix for the No, 23 car in 2021.

There were no races held at Auto Club Speedway last year.

However, there is reason for optimism as two significant changes for the 23XI Racing team have been made over the past several months. Near the end of last season, crew chief Mike Wheeler was replaced on the No. 23 car by Robert ‘Booty’ Barker. This will be the new pit boss’s first full season with that effort.

Secondly, 23XI added a second car with 43-year-old Kurt Busch in the driver’s seat. The former NASCAR Cup Series champion and 33-time race winner has a reputation for making the organizations he drives for better after his arrival. And more, his veteran presence will provide guidance and advice to Wallace on the tracks where the younger driver struggles.

Of course, a second-place finish in NASCAR’s biggest race is an outstanding result. But if Bubba Wallace is going to truly become a top flight driver at this level, he has to perform better on more than just two tracks. Aside from Daytona and Talladega, there is no facility currently in use by NASCAR for more than one year on which he has an average finish better than in the 20’s.

These next three races will tell much of the tale as far as this driver and team are concerned. Wallace doesn’t have to win or even finish in the top-five but there does need to be some signs of improvement on tracks smaller than 2.5 miles in length.

An unexpected winner that should not have been unexpected

Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.

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