Bubba Wallace may have been the last driver to climb out of his race car after pulling onto pit road at Bristol Motor Speedway with the other NASCAR Cup Series playoff drivers.
The 23XI driver took his time rejoining the world after 500 laps. With his helmet still on, Wallace sat alone with his thoughts and emotions. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. came over and poked his head into the cockpit. Tyler Reddick, Wallace’s teammate, did the same and enthusiastically slapped Wallace’s helmet a few times.
The No. 23 finished 14th in the Bass Pro Shops Night Race, and when Wallace finally climbed from his car, “slap worn-out” by his own admission, he laid his head on the hood, greeted his wife Amanda, and then needed a few minutes to sit down before fulfilling interviews obligations.
As he stood up to address the media, Wallace shouted, “(expletive), yeah!”
That’s how much it meant for Wallace and the No. 23 team to advance into the second round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. He overcame a 19-point deficit, entering the weekend outside a transfer spot.
“[I was] just trying to gather my thoughts and man, just emotional,” Wallace said. “I said to myself out loud, not on the radio, ‘Proud of you, kid,’ and we all know I rarely do that. Way to stick with it. I tried to give it away a couple of times, got frustrated at myself, frustrated at others, but it all worked out.
“Just what you need to do is execute, so this is a special day and got to cherish it but can’t get complacent. We know Texas is up, and we’re OK there, but we got to come out swinging and come out on the right end of it. Ready to go to work.”
Wallace and his team ‘survived’ the race because he acknowledges they didn’t have the car that they needed. But despite fighting the handling, he ran his race to remain in contention in the bigger picture.
“I thought Daytona was stressful, but that was stressful,” Wallace said of Bristol.
“I beat myself up so many times over the years, and I sound like some of them people up in the stands,” Wallace said of why advancing meant so much. “And to see us continue to march forward is important for my mental, the team’s mentals, everybody involved in this program. Just have to keep it going.”
A strategy call by crew chief Bootie Barker in the first stage made the difference. Barker kept Wallace on track under the first caution on lap 69, moving them into the top five. Wallace finished the stage in third place, earning eight points.
The No. 23 didn’t place in the points in the second stage, but some of his fellow playoff contenders began encountering trouble. Wallace finished ahead of Kevin Harvick and reigning series champion Joey Logano, who fell out of the race in the final stage.
The final transfer spot went to Wallace by four points over Logano and Harvick. Stenhouse was 17 points below the final transfer spot and Michael McDowell wound up 16 points behind.
“I think the strategy at the beginning was the game changer, staying out there,” Wallace said. “We watched last year’s race and saw that tires were not that big of an advantage, so thought that was key, and that gave us our buffer.”
In his first year in the postseason, Wallace advances to the second round when he knows there were doubters who counted him out. He said as much over the radio, poking fun at how he and his team were “supposed to be out” after the first round.
He didn’t say he’s motivated by proving those people wrong but he hears them.
“You can’t chase that stuff too much; I think that’s where I got caught up in years past…trying to prove the doubters wrong and not racing for [myself] and the team,” Wallace said. “When you race for the team and race for yourself, all that stuff falls in line. It’s cool.”