By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Last year featured the first time that Bubba Wallace had raced for a championship, even if it wasn’t for the championship and he learned a great deal from the experience.
23XI Racing moved Wallace into the owner’s championship eligible No. 45 for the final 10 races as a result of Kurt Busch missing the second half due to a potentially career-ending concussion. He looked every bit like a championship caliber driver despite missing the playoffs in the No. 23 car.
Wallace won at Kansas on Sept. 11, the highlight of the final stretch, but was also suspended a race for intentionally crashing Kyle Larson at Las Vegas. It was an entire season’s worth of growth and development, and he recognizes that the highs and lows makes this year the most important campaign of his career.
Hamlin certainly thinks so.
“I can use my own experiences on and off the track to sympathize with him,” Hamlin said. “I’ve made some big mistakes as well. Each one of them, I’ve learned from and I think it’s no different with him.
“He learned from that, he understands where he draws a line and where we draw a line as a race team. Even though he crossed it in that moment, I think he will be better from that life experience.”
So is this a make-or-break season as far as Wallace is concerned?
“Yeah, I don’t take that as harsh at all,” Wallace said. “I put enough pressure on myself to fully respect that question and I think this is the most excited I’ve ever been to start a season.”
Wallace now has two career victories, at Talladega in 2021 and Kansas in 2022, but both came during the playoffs in a season in which he wasn’t amongst the Field of 16 entering the final 10 races. For Wallace to consider this season a success, he believes he has to make the playoffs and make some degree of impact once in it.
“I think that we have to win at the right time,” Wallace said. “We have to win before the playoffs. One win, five wins, whatever it is between that, just have to do it at the right time and then you set yourself up for the postseason.
“As long as you can carry that momentum into the postseason, we should be okay. Let’s get one and then we can talk about multiple.”
That one could very well come by Sunday night in the Daytona 500, with Wallace having two runner-up finishes, including last year. His team owner, Denny Hamlin, believes Wallace is amongst the best superspeedway racers in the discipline right now — high praise from a three-time Daytona 500 winning driver.
“Denny’s close could be like 20th,” Wallace said with a laugh. “I was always envious when media stuff, articles come out and they would talk about the best speedway racers are Penske guys, Brad.
“I was including Brad (Keselowski) in Penske, but he’s not there anymore. Denny of course. I was like, dang, I want to be talked about. We finished second, but it is more than finishing just second. I think it’s a testament to our team, the cars we bring to the race track, so it is not all just me.
“I try to just survive. The best thing a driver can do is survive. We’ve been able to do that a few times; we just have to keep getting better. Denny is at the top of the list, so anything you can take from him is beneficial.”
Wallace says he is routinely subjected to the highlights of his near wins in 2018 and 2022. As if he didn’t relive them enough in his own head, picking apart the decisions made and not made, this is basically pre-race highlights season on FOX Sports and social media.
He has relived those moments a lot lately.
“I mean, I’m on social media enough to when you get close enough to the 500, they start posting replays you know,” Wallace said. “The closest finishes, best finishes and the worst finishes – seems like we’re always in those mixes so I relive it directly or indirectly.”
Wallace was third behind Penske teammates Austin Cindric and Ryan Blaney on the final overtime restart last year. Brad Keselowski and Chase Briscoe got the jump on Wallace from the outside going into Turn 1.
“We were pretty boxed in there,” Wallace said.
Blaney got a run on Cindric out of the final corner but got pinched into the wall by his teammate. The stalled momentum allowed Wallace to get to the Cindric’s left rear but could get no closer in the drag race.
Could Wallace have done anything different?
“What Cindric could have done different is put Blaney in the fence a little bit harder,” Wallace said with a hearty laugh.
It’s a joke and Blaney is one of his best friends.
“That way it would have hooked him in the fence, and we would have won. We were there. It just wasn’t in the cards for that night. We just have to do better.”
Is finishing second in the Great American Race twice frustrating or validating?
“I think validation after the first one, frustration after the second one,” Wallace said. “The third one – I don’t know what happens after that. I don’t know. We will have to see. We just have to win it.”
And how does he plan on doing that?
“That’s the million dollar question — let’s find out on Sunday.”