Wallace earned a historic triumph when rain brought an early end to the middle portion of the NASCAR Cup Series’ quarterfinal playoff round.
Bubba Wallace disrupted the NASCAR Cup Series playoff picture in historic fashion on Monday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway’s YellaWood 500.
As the leader when NASCAR called the race due to inclement weather at lap 117 of 188, Wallace earned the first win of his Cup Series career. He becomes the first African-American driver to win an event at NASCAR’s premier level since the late Wendell Scott in 1963. Wallace, four days away from his 28th birthday, also secured the first win for the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota. The new team is owned and operated by Wallace’s fellow Cup competitor Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan.
Rain disrupted the Cup Series postseason proceedings, pushing a Sunday event to Monday. The precipitation refused to let up, originally causing an 18-minute delay at lap 74. Once the race reached its midway point (lap 94), it became an official event.
After reaching the landmark under threatening skies, drivers knew that the race could be stopped at any point. Wallace took the lead from Kurt Busch at lap 113 and led what became the last five laps of the race. The event never went green again after a multi-car wreck took out William Byron, Matt DiBenedetto, and Ryan Preece. An ill-fated attempt to dry the track was made, but the weather eventually became too much to bear, leading NASCAR to call a lid on the race weekend.
Wallace’s historic triumph completed a trifecta of first-time winners at Talladega over the past three days, as Tate Fogelman and Brandon Brown each earned their respective first wins in the Camping World Truck and Xfinity circuits.
Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, and Christopher Bell rounded out the top five. Points leader Kyle Larson was relegated to a 37th-place finish after his car was damaged in Justin Allgaier’s spin at lap 56, shortly before Chris Buescher took home the first and only stage win.
Bubba’s Big One
One could’ve said that Wallace earning his first Cup Series victory at Talladega was far too cinematic to ever come true. Not only is he a Mobile native but Talladega was the site of last summer’s show of driver solidarity after a rope fashioned into what was originally construed as a noose was found in the garage area. While an FBI investigation determined that there was no hate crime, drivers nonetheless stood alongside Wallace, pushing his car to the front of the starting line during pre-race ceremonies.Â
Wallace, however, foresaw a fruitful visit to the superspeedway after promising results both there and Daytona. He led 16 laps during April’s visit to Talladega and wound up in the runner-up spot at Daytona’s regular season finale in August.
“I was sitting there reading over our notes, looking at our previous race here in the spring. I was like, man, our first stage average was pretty damn good,” Wallace recalled. I think we were like fourth on average. After that, we were like 15th to 20th second and in the third stage we ended up I think 18th or so.”
“It made me think about Daytona. We led some laps in Daytona in the summer, even at the 500. We lead some races early on, then kind of survived and get a good finish…For some reason, I had a feeling we were going to win. This was on Friday. I was like, weâ€™re going to go win. (My wife) Amanda said we were going to win. I had a buddy of mine, Mamba, I told him Iâ€™m going to go out and win. I got it documented.”
Wallace went head-to-head with Kurt Busch, who will join him at 23XI next season in the No. 45 Toyota, and his team owner trying to work with one of his own teammates. With Hamlin’s semifinal status assured thanks to a win at Las Vegas last weekend, his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was pushing the No. 20 Camry of Christopher Bell to the lead. Bell could’ve likewise earned a ticket to the semifinals with a win, which would’ve been his first since the second event of the season at the Daytona road course in February.
Though Hamlin missed out on a JGR jackpot (Bell sits 27 points out of the final transfer spot), he was proud of what Wallace was able to accomplish, saying that watching the No. 23 team earn the victory was like “watching your kid succeed at whatever theyâ€™re doing”. Hamlin was pleased with the way Wallace applied lessons learned at prior visits to Talladega and Daytona.
“He made some big changes from Daytona (in February) and Talladega (in April) to Daytona (in August). I mentioned to him this week,” Hamlin, the eventual seventh-place finisher, said. Iâ€™ve just seen a transition with him, his willingness to take in information and apply it. I think this is not going to be the last time youâ€™re going to be hearing about his name on a superspeedway. Heâ€™s very gifted at them. He has very, very good instincts.”
Shake Your Bootie
Monday marked not only Wallace’s first win in his Cup Series career but it was marked first such triumph for his crew chief Robert “Bootie” Barker.
Barker had not visited victory lane since 2003 while overseeing the endeavors of another No. 23 car, that of Scott Wimmer’s at Bill Davis Racing. The pair won four races en route to a third-place finish in the Busch (now Xfinity) Series standings the year prior, but Barker, despite developing a strong reputation across the sport, was still seeking his first win in 483 Cup Series starts. Barker originally joined 23XI in a behind-the-scenes role but was asked to return to the pit box three races ago, replacing Mike Wheeler (now 23XI’s Director of Race Competition). Barker’s last work as a crew chief came in 2018 with Riley Herbst’s ARCA team.
Working with Wallace required little reconditioning for Barker, who was familiar with his new driver. Barker was attracted to the sheer number of resources available to him at 23XI…and that included its original driver.
“I enjoy the situation Iâ€™m in. I enjoy working with Bubba. I feel like he has a lot of upside (and) a lot of potential,” Barker said of Wallace. “My main focus was to make sure the team, the strength of the team, was brought to bear. In other words, I didnâ€™t do anything to inhibit us, make no mistakes, put us in a position to succeed has been my main focus. I knew Bubba could get it done. I knew we had the stuff and the people to support him to knock it out.”
Though it wasn’t their first win, Wallace and Barker’s collaboration ended one of the more dubious, hidden losing streaks in NASCAR history. Primary sponsor McDonald’s, which first entered the sport in 1973, sent a car to victory lane for the first since Jimmy Spencer’s July 1994 triumph, also at Talladega.
23XI became the first team to win a Cup Series race in its debut season since Hendrick Motorsports, who has sent four representatives in the Round of 12. If anyone wanted the rains to stop, it was that cursed quartet, whose best finishing Chevrolet was Chase Elliott’s No. 9 in 18th.
Larson wound up four laps down in 37th after his No. 5 Chevrolet clipped Allgaier’s spinning No. 77, ruining his handling for the rest of the afternoon. His position only partly improved thanks to his teammate Alex Bowman dropping to 38th after he was involved in a hard wreck that also took out Tyler Reddick. Byron’s unfortunate involvement in DiBenedetto and Preece’s incident doomed him to 36th.
While Larson’s prior endeavors built him a solid cushion (his lead above the cutoff is down to 22 points but he’s second place behind only Hamlin), Byron (44 points back) and Bowman (52) are in undeniable must-win situations if they plan on keeping their championship dreams alive.
The NASCAR Cup Series’ Round of 12 concludes next Sunday afternoon at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where the track’s famous “Roval” (part-oval, part-road course) will host the event that determines the eight-driver semifinal lineup (2 p.m. ET, NBC). Returning to the Roval is music to Elliott’s ears: the defending series champion has won each of the last two visits. Elliott is currently the last driver eligible for the semifinal round, as his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet leads its new rival, 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick, by eight points.
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Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMagsÂ