NASCAR: How Bubba Wallace gained playoff experience before the playoffs

Bubba Wallace, 23XI Racing, NASCAR playoffs (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)
Bubba Wallace, 23XI Racing, NASCAR playoffs (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images) /

Past playoff experience ironically helped Bubba Wallace to prepare for being a first-time NASCAR Cup Series playoff driver in 2023.

It came down to the final lap of the final regular season race at Daytona International Speedway, but 23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace was able to qualify for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs for the first time in his six-year career as a full-time driver in 2023, securing the 16th and final spot on points.

But Wallace, the only first-time playoff driver in this year’s playoff field, entered the postseason in a situation similar to that of each of the other 15 playoff drivers: with playoff experience.

Despite having never made the playoffs himself, Wallace gained valuable playoff experience last year after Kurt Busch gave up his playoff spot due to a head injury he suffered in a qualifying crash at Pocono Raceway.

Ty Gibbs had been Busch’s replacement behind the wheel of the No. 45 Toyota to conclude the regular season, but 23XI Racing moved Wallace to the car for the playoffs.

The reason for the change was the fact that Busch had already locked his No. 45 team into the owner playoffs by winning the regular season race at Kansas Speedway. So while Busch personally withdrew from the postseason, the No. 45 team remained in contention for the owner title.

Wallace, despite not being a playoff driver himself, got to represent the No. 45 team in last year’s NASCAR Cup Series owner playoffs, and with a round of 16 win — ironically also at Kansas — he got the team to the round of 12.

Bubba Wallace spoke about being in the unique position of actually having had NASCAR Cup Series playoff experience before making his first true playoff appearance.

“I don’t feel like [the pressure] was [different],” Wallace told Beyond the Flag. “I felt like for me it’s just race to race, and as different as the schedule can be, it’s still an opportunity to go out and compete and win races and run really well and get as many points as you can and all that jazz.”

Wallace had a chance to advance to the round of 8 by winning the round of 12 opener at Texas Motor Speedway, but he was passed for the lead with a handful of laps remaining. He did not manage to get back above the round of 8 cut line in the final two round of 12 races at Talladega Superspeedway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

“You just have to understand where you’re at and try to make the most of every situation,” he continued. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the cards to get to the next round; I think there were some signs that were pointing like if we continue to execute, that it could happen, and then it all kind of came to a screeching halt unfortunately.

“Feel proud of the efforts. Like you said, we proved a lot of people wrong and made a lot of heads turn, and [we’re] continuing to build on the excitement going into next year.”

Unlike last year, he didn’t win a race in the round of 16 this year, so his advancement to the round of 12 this year marked the first time he truly had to worry about a points cut line.

“Yeah, I mean, we won in the first round last year,” he said. “We had some stressful moments trying to get into the playoffs [this year] and then make it to the round of 12.”

Last year, he was unable to get the No. 45 team over the round of 8 cut line, and the same held true this time around on the driver side.

“I was super stressed at Daytona and Bristol and Charlotte,” he admitted about this year’s cutoff races. “As stressful as it was, I felt really good and confident about what we had going. Our fate was determined by somebody else’s mistake, unfortunately.

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“But yeah, I think every moment is a learning moment; you got to look at the good and the bad and the ugly and take it on and work on it for later.”