Bubba Wallace managed to execute a fuel-saving strategy to perfection.
Crew chief Mike Wheeler asked Wallace to save two laps of fuel at Pocono Raceway on Sunday (June 27) and he nailed the assignment, finishing fifth in the Explore the Pocono Mountains 350 for 23XI Racing’s first top five and first top 10 in the program’s 19-race history.
That fuel strategy originated when Wallace contacted the wall early in the race due to an aero push.
“That kind of put us behind so we knew we had to pull some strategy,” Wallace said. “I knew our car was good enough to be top 10 and execute. I didn’t know it was gonna come down to a nail-biter for fuel, but great call by Wheels, JR [Houston, engineer], everybody back at the shop that’s punching numbers, helping us calculate throughout the weekend. It’s a good day. Good weekend.”
Wallace went the first 12 races of 2021 without a top-15 finish. Now, in his last five starts, the No. 23 team has strung together four such results, three of which were 14th-place performances. The lone exception was last weekend at Nashville Superspeedway, where Wallace finished 20th after spinning twice.
It’s the kind of run and execution the program has needed all year long.
“Looking at today, it did come down to fuel mileage,” Wallace said. “A lot of people ran out, but we had a strategy and we stuck to it. Everybody knows [in] NASCAR that strategy is a part of it in some way, some fashion. Our race is usually get caught up by a caution and the strategy goes out the window. So we executed the way we should.”
Wheeler admitted he also learned from past strategies gone wrong, improving the output as he asked Wallace to manage the fuel load late.
“This is one of those tracks and a 550-(horsepower) package that it’s really hard to save that much distance with these low-horsepower specs,” Wheeler said. “We’ve tried it at Texas [Motor Speedway] before and failed miserably. That’s why you’re trying to coach it. And you’re still crossing your fingers. But the more he’s doing it for over 30 laps, you can get a better chance at it.”
Sunday also marked the first time all season teams had a chance to re-race a track, albeit this time with the next event just over 24 hours later. That allowed Wallace to provide feedback and Wheeler to handle the changes they felt necessary to make.
“Yeah, definitely having a race yesterday helps,” Wheeler said. “I think that’s what we saw early on. Once [Wallace] got track position, he was able to run forward and kind of run close to the leaders. I don’t think we were better than what the No. 19 or the No. 18 car was, that type of deal. But we weren’t tenths of a second off. We just needed a little bit.
“And it’s hard to get that last little bit. It’s hard to run as good as these guys do. They’ve been doing it for years. But I felt like again, we were a 10th-place car yesterday. We made a [14th]-place finish. We were going to be five spots better today. We still have to execute, right? But definitely, him having a night to sleep on what he had, looking at data to really go through it, I think that’s how it makes him a better driver.”
Wheeler noted this finish isn’t a cure-all. There are still things to improve, and perhaps even with strategy, noting that if there were two more gallons in the tank left over, that might be another two spots they could have gained. But he’s making sure they enjoy the moment, too.
“I think the other thing is to celebrate what we actually did do,” Wheeler said, “which was get a top five when we were behind the 8-ball to start stage three. There’s moments to actually celebrate, and you know it’s not a win, but for us, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. And again, with all these guys that work on the car and the ownership, it’s one of the first things we’ve done as a group. So [we’ll] celebrate that, enjoy it and get back to work.”
Ownership, by the way, was present at Pocono in the form of co-owner Michael Jordan. His other co-owner, Denny Hamlin, said Saturday that he and Jordan spoke prior to the first race of the doubleheader, and having him at the track can only be a positive.
“Honestly, the neat thing is it doesn’t really affect myself and the guys too much,” Wheeler said. “It’s definitely obviously rewarding for MJ to pat you on the back for a good run or hearing the good aspects of the team, to see it firsthand. That’s one of those things, for any owner that sticks around and pats you on the back after a good run, you just appreciate that.
“Obviously, MJ is larger than life. Denny’s very much the same thing, so for them to commend you when they’re here in person, it does have a little more reward.”
The lack of consistent results throughout the course of the season has certainly slowed any feel of progress for 23XI Racing over the course of 2021. But Wallace acknowledged Jordan’s understanding of the sport and that the process of winning takes time.
“Everybody talks about, he’s a winner. He’s a champion. Yeah, but he’s also a realistic person,” Wallace said of Jordan. “He wants to win, for sure. But he knows what it’s gonna take for us to get there. [His presence is] more for me. It’s more for the team. It’s more of a group effort. And he’s in the background watching enjoying it.
“He’s hooked. Having Michael Jordan hooked to NASCAR is huge. And it’s getting a lot of other big names hooked as well. That’s what the sport needs.”
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