What a year it was for Bubba Wallace and the No. 23/No. 45 23XI Racing team. Yeah, No. 23 and No. 45 – don’t worry, the explanation is coming. While the driver put up career-best figures: one win, five top-fives and 10 top-10s, it will be a year as much remembered for egregious intentional crashes, total logistical meltdowns, pit crew errors and relief drivers as it will be for any of the highlights.
Perhaps we all should have known what the year would bring for Wallace considering how it started. He opened the season by coming about as close as humanly possible to winning the Daytona 500 while still finishing second, ending the night runner-up to Austin Cindric and missing the left-front fender on his No. 23 Camry.
It would be three more races until Wallace took the checkered flag with all four fenders intact, earning results of second, 19th, 25th, and 22nd across the opening four races.
At first look: more of the same for the driver of the No. 23. Contending for wins on the high-banked superspeedways and anonymous runs on the fringes of the top-20 everywhere else. It’s what NASCAR fans have come to expect from Bubba Wallace throughout his five years of full-time Cup competition. But then, to add insult to injury, the wheels literally fell off.
While every pit crew struggled to wrap their heads and hands around the Next Gen car’s new 18-inch center-lock wheels, the No. 23 team had it harder than most. NASCAR officials gave crew chief Bootie Barker a mandatory four-week vacation after a left rear tire fell off the No. 23 at Circuit of the Americas. Slow stops, loose wheels, crashes and mechanical failures throughout the regular season’s first half left Wallace a disappointing 25th in the standings after Road America.
A particular lowlight was the No. 23 team’s complete logistical meltdown at the Coca-Cola 600. After qualifying seventh Wallace quickly worked his way to the front, taking the lead briefly on lap 40; while Toyota Racing Development struggled for speed on most track types at the start of the season, TRD’s mile-and-a-half program was strong. Wallace had the car to contend for the win.
Then on lap 193 after being collected in one of the night’s many accidents, the No. 23 was dinged for failing to meet minimum speed and sent to the garage.
Except it wasn’t due to damage.
With only a few laps remaining in the stage, the No. 23 team asked Wallace to take it easy on the tires until the green-and-white checkers. Wallace backed it down so far that the perfectly healthy Camry failed to meet minimum speed, not because the car wasn’t capable, but because his team told him not to!
But at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the 20th race of the year, things suddenly turned around. The DraftKings-sponsored car was fast right off the truck, and Wallace qualified fourth – by far his career-best performance on the flat one-mile oval.
The next day, he backed that up with a quiet, confident run to third place, the best finish of his career on a track shorter than 2.5 miles. The next week at Pocono, Wallace qualified seventh and finished eighth to score back-to-back top-10s for the first time in his career.
Unbelievably, Wallace escaped a chaotic overtime finish at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course with a fifth-place result, by far the best finish on a road course for the fifth-year wheelman.
“Chaos ensued,” Wallace told Frontstretch.com reporter Daniel McFadin from racing’s most famous pit road. “I closed my eyes, gassed it up and we were sixth … 100 percent luck. My guys gave me a good car.”
On the strength of those three top-10s and Toyota’s strong form on intermediate ovals, Wallace earned his first career pole position for the next race at Michigan International Speedway – a historic first pole position for a Black driver in the Cup Series.
With the No. 23’s slow start to the season, the NASCAR world knew that if Wallace were to compete for a championship, he’d need to win one of the final four rounds of the regular season, and Michigan was by far his best shot.
The No. 23 fronted the first 21 laps of the Hollywood Casino 400, and even after losing the lead, Wallace hung around the top five all day. When a series of crashes and penalties knocked Ross Chastain, Daniel Suárez, Christopher Bell and Denny Hamlin out of contention, Wallace looked set to pounce on Kevin Harvick and take an upset second career victory.
But when Wallace lost time fighting Joey Logano and Kyle Larson for second, Harvick delivered his No. 4 team a streak-snapping victory.
A tearful Wallace told the media, “I’m just replaying everything I could have done … Appreciate my team. Wish we could have got Toyota in victory lane. She was fast all week, man. I’ll wear this one on my heart for a while. I failed everybody.”
With finishes of 13th, 35th and 11th across the final three races of the regular season, Wallace and 23XI would once again miss the Cup Series playoffs.
Perhaps no driver has been written about more in the last three years than Bubba Wallace. Thrust into the national conversation for his off-the-track activism, Wallace became the most-recognized name in NASCAR before he’d even won a Cup race.
I’d like to make two points clear. One – Bubba Wallace does not have to be a winning driver to justify his activism, his notoriety, or his presence at the highest level of stock car racing. Two – Bubba Wallace was already a Cup Series winner at that point, earning 23XI’s first victory in a rain-shortened Talladega contest the previous fall.
However, those opinions are not shared by the many driving-with-sunglasses-profile-picture detractors that post randomly-capitalized diatribes underneath any and every NASCAR social media post that includes Wallace.
Wallace doesn’t have to win races to prove that he and what he stands for belongs in the Cup Series, but because of the part inside all of us that wishes life were more like a sports movie, he felt like he needed to. And for the win to really count, he needed to cross the line. And it couldn’t be at one of those crap-shoot superspeedway races either.
Maybe you can see where I’m going with this.
In the second race of the playoffs at Kansas Speedway, Wallace led 58 laps, including the final 43 to claim the second win of his Cup Series career, and third overall for 23XI. He took the lead from Alex Bowman on the final cycle of green-flag pit stops and held the top spot despite late challenges from Hamlin and Christopher Bell. It was Kansas City redemption for Wallace, who’d had a top-five run at the track earlier in the season go awry after a slow pit stop, and in a NASCAR trivia factoid for the ages, he did it driving the No. 45 car, not his usual No. 23.
In qualifying at Pocono Raceway, 23XI driver Kurt Busch suffered a concussion that brought an early end to his 2022 season. After concluding he wouldn’t be able to return in the playoffs, Busch withdrew his NASCAR injury waiver, removing his name from the final grid of 16. But since the No. 45 continued to compete with rookie Ty Gibbs behind the wheel, 23XI still had a dog in the owners’ championship fight, and by swapping number decals on its race cars, Wallace found the hopes and dreams of 23XI pinned to his back for the season’s final 10 races.
Four top-10s in nine races was good enough to put the No. 45 in 10th place in the year-end standings, ahead of teams from Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske, and Joe Gibbs Racing, but after the Kansas win, there’s one major memorable moment from Wallace’s time in the owner playoffs. And it isn’t a good one.
Similar in its dimensions to the 1.5-mile intermediate track in Kansas, Wallace had challenged for a top-10 in the spring race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, before a late crash with Erik Jones brought his day to a close.
In the Nevada track’s fall race, Wallace qualified ninth, but on the strength of a fast No. 45 Camry and his new confidence at intermediate racing, he took the lead on lap 57, holding it for the next 29 laps until the green-and-white checkered flag waved on his first stage win outside of Talladega Superspeedway.
But then on lap 96, in the middle of a heated battle for sixth with Kyle Larson, Wallace made contact with the wall on the exit of turn four.
I chose my words carefully there. For my money, I’m not willing to definitively declare that Larson didn’t run Wallace out of room, or that Wallace didn’t just get tight and wash up into the SAFER barrier. It was definitely the product of aggressive racing, but even watching it over and over again, it’s hard to say who is truly to blame. At the risk of angering the sunglasses-driving avatars, I’ll call it a racing deal.
What happened next is a lot easier to understand. Passing through the tri-oval, Wallace turned sharp left, hitting Larson in the right rear and sending the No. 5 spearing into the outside wall, the No. 45 following him for good measure, and collecting Christopher Bell’s No. 20 in the process.
When the Nos. 5 and 45 came to rest in the tri-oval grass, Wallace ran over to Larson and started shoving him, before NASCAR officials separated the two.
“The steering was gone,” Wallace told NBC Sports at first, before admitting just moments later: “I don’t lift. I know I’m kinda new to running up front, but I don’t lift. Wasn’t even in a spot to lift, and he never lifted either, so now we’re junk.”
Larson offered his perspective: “I got in low and got it loose and chased it up a bit. He got into my right front and it got him tight and into the wall … He had a reason to be mad but his race wasn’t over until he retaliated. Is what it is. Just aggression turned into frustration.”
For his actions, Wallace was handed down a one-race suspension for the next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway, another 1.5-mile track at which he’d expect to have a good run. While Wallace sat on the sidelines, the first driver suspended for on-track intentional contact since Matt Kenseth in 2015, John Hunter Nemechek became the fourth driver to represent the 23XI No. 45 in 2022, running in the top five early before wrecking out of contention.
To his credit, Wallace posted on social media that he was watching the race from 23XI headquarters, having “Doordash[ed] some humble pie.”
Wallace finished out the year with an eighth-place run at Martinsville and a 22nd-place result in the championship race at Phoenix. His statistics, combined with Busch’s, Gibbs’, and Nemechek’s earned the No. 45 a 10th-place finish in the final owner standings. Wallace finished a career-high 19th in the drivers standings.
For both Bubba Wallace and 23XI Racing, it was a year to remember and a year to forget. Both full-time drivers earned race wins, but a concussion forced one of them into an early retirement. Wallace finally put complete runs together at the front of the pack, but 2022 may be remembered for the inexcusable intentional crash at Las Vegas.
With the highly-lauded Tyler Reddick replacing Busch in the No. 45 for 2023, 23XI Racing looks positioned to carry their late-season momentum forward into the new year. Only time will tell if it’s more flashes of brilliance or more agonizing disappointment that will characterize the organization’s third year.
Somehow, I’d bet on both.
Featured image from our very own Pat Vallely