It likely took longer than anticipated, but 23XI Racing and driver Bubba Wallace scored their first top-five finish of the season following Sunday’s Explore the Pocono Mountains 350.
It came down to a thrilling fuel mileage finish, and Wallace saved enough fuel to give 23XI their best performance to date.
“All in all, a really solid weekend,” Wallace told NBC’s Kelli Stavast post-race. “A great day for DraftKings, their first race on the car. First top five for the team, so I think that’s a little pen to paper action to re-sign or re-up there.”
"Today shows what we can do."@BubbaWallace records his first top-five finish of the year, and the first top-five finish in team history for @23XIRacing. #NASCAR pic.twitter.com/RU6ORogpzk
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) June 27, 2021
Wallace finished the first race of the weekend on Saturday P14 after a relatively clean showing for the No. 23 Camry. Thanks to the inversion, Wallace rolled off in seventh in a newly re-wrapped DraftKings livery.
The Alabama driver was able to hang around cleanly during stage one of Sunday’s race, bringing his Toyota to the green-checkered in the fifth position. The finish gave Wallace six stage points, which could become a crucial amount heading into the Playoff season.
Stage two brought some adversity to overcome for Wallace, after tagging the outside wall on his own. Driver No. 23 was forced to come to pit road to have some brief bodywork done on the right rear of the car. The damage barely hindered the performance of the car but relegated him back to a 14th place finish for the stage. Wallace also recorded three laps led during the stage.
The final stage of the race is where things got quite interesting. Fuel mileage was going to be the name of the game. Crew chief Mike Wheeler called Wallace in with 43 laps to go, in what would be the final stop of the day.
Many drivers including William Byron, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, and Wallace himself were doing all they could to maximize their fuel.
Throughout the final 40 laps, it became more of a team effort to help get their first top-five finish. Wheeler and spotter Freddie Kraft were communicating with Wallace on where exactly on the track to save fuel, how much throttle to use, and where to coast.
In the final handful of laps, Wallace was scored outside the top five. However, after Hamlin was forced to pit for fuel from the lead, eventual winner Kyle Busch took the lead. The failure for Hamlin was Wallace’s gain as he moved into the fifth position where he would ultimately end the day.
Bubba Wallace. Mike Wheeler. Freddie Kraft. The crew.
— 23XI Racing (@23XIRacing) June 27, 2021
It’s a good run for the playoff bid, but standing in 22nd position, Wallace acknowledged that work needs to be done if 23XI’s hopes of a playoff berth should come to reality.
As Wallace explained, “We wanted playoffs when we started the season. So we’ve got a lot of work to do, we know we are in a hole but it’s finished like this that we need to capitalize on. We’ve had the speed in our cars and it is just for me not executing, pit road not executing… all in all it’s a team effort for not executing on the days where we’ve had the speed. So today shows what we can do, we just have to keep building on that.”
So where does this put Wallace for the playoffs? Team No. 23 remain 54 points below the cutline in 20th, with fellow newcomer Trackhouse sitting only six points better in 18th.
23XI now puts their attention on Road America, where Wallace scored a pair of top 10 finishes in two starts during his Xfinity days.
Fans can see the NASCAR Cup Series visit Road America on Sunday, July 4th at 2:30 PM EST on NBC.