Photo: Logan T. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Bubba Wallace Claims Final Spot in Playoffs, Chase Elliott Eliminated

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Bubba Wallace came to Daytona holding on to the final spot available in the 2023 edition of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs and for him to be able to walk out of the World Center of Racing with that still in his possession, he would need one of two things to happen.

Either he would need to park his No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota in Victory Lane at the end of the night and firmly secure the last Playoff berth, or he would need a driver that had already won this season or was already locked in on points to win instead and deny the 16 other winless drivers a chance at stealing it away from him.

For most of the night, it didn’t look like the first option was going to go his way as the Ford contingent established their dominance early and often. As the laps wound down and Wallace sitting outside the top-10, he was going to need someone like Chris Buescher, Brad Keselowski, or Kevin Harvick to bring home the trophy to pave the way for him to get into the Playoffs.

Turns out he would get his wish, as Keselowski pushed Buescher to his third win of the season, which locked the door on anyone else being able to make it into the field of championship contenders and secured his place in the Playoffs for the first time in his career.

“I’m just relieved,” Wallace said afterwards amidst a throng of well-wishers. “I apologized to my wife (Amanda) all week. I haven’t been myself – I’ve been stressing. Thankful that we are in it.

“That is the most calm I’ve ever been. It’s ass-backwards. You come to Daytona, and you focus so much on controlling the things that you can control. My stubborn ass never wants to listen to people telling me that. I finally did that, and we are locked in. What an incredible feat for our 23 team.

“I had a heart-to-heart with my team after Atlanta after qualifying – I said if we got our shit together, we can do great things in the Playoffs. I’m so proud of the team from top down, very thankful.”

Meanwhile on the other end of the spectrum was 2020 Cup Series champion and perennial Most Popular Driver Chase Elliott, who was in one of those must-win positions coming into the night.

Ahead of this weekend, Elliott likened being in a must-win position at Daytona to having to hit the jackpot on a slot machine in Las Vegas and at points during Saturday night’s race, it looked like Lady Luck might just be rolling his way, but alas, it was not to be.

Elliott climbed from deep in the field at the start of the race to find himself in contention when it mattered the most, lining up behind Kevin Harvick on the low lane, with Buescher and Keselowski in the high line for the overtime restart.

Even with Harvick ahead and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Larson pushing from behind, the RFK Racing duo was just too much to overcome and he would have to settle for a fourth-place finish. Close, but no cigar in the race for the final Playoff spot.

“I feel like we had an OK chance there, but Brad (Keselowski) and the No. 17 (Chris Buescher) just worked so well together there and they were able to stay locked-on,” Elliott said. “They were so locked-on there.. they just had a strangle-hold on the top lane. Unfortunately I just couldn’t get to Kevin (Harvick) and stay there like that, and just make the bottom lane work. I kind of bottled it up there and just couldn’t get enough momentum going forward.”

Now eliminated from championship contention for the first time in his Cup Series career, Elliott will have the owner’s championship chase to focus on over the next 10 weeks as he hopes to deliver an owner’s title to team owner Rick Hendrick.

Coincidentally, it’s the same position that Wallace found himself in a year ago when he was eliminated from the driver’s championship battle, but was still in the running for the owner’s title.

“It was a valiant effort and I appreciate the effort from everybody – from the No. 9 team, Team Chevy, Hendrick Motorsports. I thought we all worked really well together tonight. Obviously, we came up a little short, but nonetheless – I hate the way the season has gone, but proud to get the car into the owner’s championship.

“It’s a big deal to get in on the owner’s side, so hopefully we’ll try and go make some noise on that front, and just keep progressing and pushing to be better for next year. We’ll be better through all of this down the road.”

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.