Top Dog: Bubba Wallace
With the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway (Aug. 28) playing host to the regular season finale, everyone knew that anything could happen. Look no further than Michael McDowell opening the year for the underdogs in a strong way by winning the prestigious Daytona 500. With 15 drivers eligible to lock up a playoff spot by snagging a win, entire seasons were on the line for some of these underdogs.
Their performances did not disappoint.
One of the favorites to pull off an upset win was Bubba Wallace. Wallace arguably appeared to have one of the fastest cars in the season-opening 500, only to get collected in a late crash and finish 17th. This time around, he didn’t appear to have quite as strong of a car. However, Daytona doesn’t reward people based off speed alone. Survival is key, and that played a major factor into his second career runner-up finish (he crossed the line third, but initial runner-up Chris Buescher was disqualified).
It was not easy for Wallace to maneuver his way to the front. He sat around 20th place for not one, but two pileups during the final 15 laps. However, a third big wreck was indeed the charm, paving the way for Wallace to earn his runner-up showing. A tap from Kurt Busch sent Daniel Suarez spinning into Kevin Harvick, setting off the third Big One of the night. As many drivers who avoided the crash proclaimed, the seas parted in front of them. Through the middle came the fish-themed livery of Wallace’s No. 23 Colombia PFG Toyota.
The reward for missing the incident? Wallace’s second runner-up result of his career and 23XI Racing’s best finish in its inaugural season.
“On that last restart, our car felt slow, just sluggish,” Wallace said after the race. “The seas parted when that wreck happened and I just stayed in it… It was a solid day. We led some laps. It’s the best I’ve kept a speedway car clean, mostly. Thanks for Colombia and giving them a good run. [I’m] just frustrated. I’m the one that gets called out for not working with teammates and I’m the one that gets left hanging. That’s the reason Ford is in victory lane, because they always work together.”
Wallace’s comments were likely in reference to what team co-owner and fellow Toyota teammate Denny Hamlin said about him during the race at Talladega Superspeedway in April. Hamlin expressed frustration with Wallace’s work in the draft, voicing over the radio, “The same thing happened at Daytona.”
This time around, during a longer green-flag run in the final stage, Wallace was leading a group of Toyotas and Chevrolets after the Ford cars had pitted. Wallace’s spotter, Freddie Kraft, gave clearance to pull Toyota teammates onto the bottom line with him. When Wallace did so, the other Toyotas, led by Kyle Busch, went by on the outside, causing Wallace to lose a few positions.
The Mobile, Ala. native did recover, the second-place finish combined with two stage points earned in stage two. However, a good points day rings hollow in this case; a victory was the only way Wallace would have landed a playoff spot.
“Up and down regular season for us,” he added. “It’s a brand new team. Everybody is still figuring each other out. I’ve always said our superspeedway stuff is good. It’s good to give us a finish we deserved. I don’t think we were a winning car, so I can’t hang my head too much, but knowing that we needed a win and we came up just short stings a little bit.”
Wallace will now turn his attention to getting reps in for the 2022 season as 23XI Racing continues to grow. With Kurt Busch announced to pilot the team’s No. 45 next season, carrying sponsorship from Monster Energy, the young Wallace now has a champion teammate to help him learn and develop.
The next 10 races will be interesting to watch as to how many chances the team will take, as well as no playoff pressure perhaps allowing it to be even more aggressive in the final part of the season. There have been questions, concerns and inconsistencies for 23XI since its debut, but to come out of the regular season finale just one spot short is nothing to hang their heads about.
While Wallace scored the highest finish of the night for the underdogs, it was Corey LaJoie who may deserve the spotlight the most. During the broadcast, it was reported LaJoie’s Spire Motorsports team gave him the green light to be aggressive and go for the win. The message was received and carried out in a big way. However, the effort came up just short.
LaJoie started out the night by earning four stage points in stage one after a seventh-place result. That was just the foundation to an impressive night from the No. 7 team. While he only led one lap, LaJoie’s bright blue and yellow Built Energy Bar Chevrolet could be seen up front for a large portion of the evening.
While many drivers gave in to running the top during extended runs, it was LaJoie maximizing opportunities and being aggressive on the bottom. His engine may not have carried a line like powerhouse cars could, but he was not afraid to get in front of one. That aggression nearly landed him a colossal upset.
After avoiding a large pileup with four laps remaining, LaJoie found himself positioned in third. On the restart, LaJoie was able to push Ryan Blaney out to the lead, setting himself up for a final push. The No. 7 backed up to Harvick, allowing him to get a big run in turn 3. However, LaJoie didn’t make the move and stuck to Blaney’s back bumper instead.
With another push from Harvick in turns 1 and 2, LaJoie looked to be in prime position once again to make a move. Unfortunately, Harvick made the move first and LaJoie was shuffled backward. Seconds later, Suarez was turned up the track, leaving the 29-year-old with nowhere to go and collecting him in the crash. It is certainly an ending that will he’ll replay in his head for a while, as it appeared there were two favorable opportunities to steal the lead and potential win away. Still, LaJoie exemplified skills that could continue to land eyes on him for larger opportunities in the future.
Along with LaJoie, Ryan Preece was a dark horse that had good odds at an upset going into the race. Preece finished sixth in the Daytona 500, his fourth career top 10 at this track type. The Berlin, Conn. native has had a knack for acquiring good results at superspeedways in his short career and a fourth-place finish on Saturday just kept the steam rolling. Preece and JTG Daugherty Racing teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. both showed strong speed throughout the night, putting themselves in position to win.
However, a lap 156 crash didn’t work in Preece’s favor. He was second on the bottom, in a great position to get to the front when Chase Elliott and Matt DiBenedetto’s contact set off the incident. Blaney moved down to avoid them, making light contact with Preece and turning the No. 37 around. To their credit, the pit crew successfully worked on the car to get Preece caught up with the lead pack. Then, as chaos ensued on the final lap, Preece was among a handful of drivers to sneak through an opening in front, charging into the top five. For another driver potentially job hunting for 2022, results like these can only help matters.
The top 10 was absolutely full of surprises, typical for Daytona. After earning an emotional fourth superspeedway victory hours earlier in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, the 2019 winner of this race, Justin Haley, brought home a sixth-place finish. The result was his career best in Cup outside of that rain-shortened win.
Lost between the luster of 23XI Racing and Trackhouse Racing is the third new full-time team this year in Live Fast Motorsports, co-owned by B.J. McLeod and Matt Tifft. Severely limited on resources, Live Fast has looked to build a foundation for the future with the Next Gen car well on the way.
However, it was a night to remember this year for Live Fast at Daytona. McLeod has worked as hard as anyone in the garage to get his teams off the ground. Running underfunded equipment in both the Cup and NASCAR Xfinity Series is not an easy task, yet McLeod keeps on growing. It was only fitting for him to pilot the No. 78 to the team’s first top 10 in its young history (ninth).
Right behind McLeod was Josh Bilicki, who also benefitted from Buescher’s disqualification. Bilicki was bumped up to 10th as a result, his first career top-10 finish in 61 Cup starts. Bilicki is another driver who works extremely hard just to be able to race. He has been with underfunded teams most of his career, and finally, some solid results are coming. Just two weeks ago, he earned a top 20 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and now, he has a night to savor for quite awhile.
Suarez was another driver who came close to pulling off an upset win Saturday night. With a full head of steam down the backstretch, Suarez was a pass and setup on race winner Blaney from stealing the victory. But just as he got to the quarterpanel of Harvick, Kurt Busch turned him, sending the No. 99 CommScope Chevrolet up the track and into harm’s way. Hit numerous times, the crash relegated Suarez to a 19th-place result. The smoke and bent sheet metal took any hopes of a playoff spot with it, but this team has shown a lot of potential for the future.
Small Team Scheme of the Week
The Coke Zero Sugar 400 is one of my favorite races of the year due to the unique paint schemes rolled out for this event.
Plenty of cars could have won this award for Daytona. Honorable mentions are deserved for LaJoie, McLeod’s No. 78 Gatorland/Boggy Adventures Ford and Garrett Smithley’s No. 53 True Brand Chevrolet. However, it was Wallace’s No. 23 Colombia PFG Toyota taking the prize. The teal, white, and salmon colors meshed perfectly with the Florida setting and made me want to go fishing. It was also one of the lone cars to make it all 400 miles with no damage.
The Tarpon was made to swim out front.
Best scheme on the track, fastest fish in the sea.
Bubba Wallace. P1. pic.twitter.com/wul2etgpBs
— 23XI Racing (@23XIRacing) August 29, 2021
What to Expect Next
The playoffs are here for Cup and NASCAR Camping World Truck series fans! As we are doing with Carson Hocevar in the trucks, we will follow Michael McDowell’s playoff journey as the postseason underdog. The NASCAR Xfinity Series, meanwhile, still has three races to settle its playoff picture.
All three series head to the Lady in Black in Darlington Raceway. The Truck Series was originally scheduled to run at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, but that was shifted to the South Carolina track due to COVID-19 restrictions.
For the underdogs, McDowell opens the playoffs in 12th with no advantage over the cutline. Hocevar sits in seventh with a 13-point advantage over ninth-place Zane Smith.
What They’re Saying
— Bubba Wallace (@BubbaWallace) August 29, 2021
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) August 29, 2021
Right now… pic.twitter.com/Z3UEMEzZpA
— Spire Motorsports (@SpireMotorsport) August 29, 2021
Man, that @CoreyLaJoie kid wheeled ‘er tonight. Fun to watch.
— Dave Moody (@DGodfatherMoody) August 29, 2021
Per @NASCAR: The No. 17 of Chris Buescher failed post-race inspection and was disqualified as a result.
— JTG Daugherty Racing (@JTGRacing) August 29, 2021
— Live Fast Motorsports (@teamlivefast) August 29, 2021
Heartbroken. But we’re still going to get ourselves a win this year. pic.twitter.com/GYH4Tf2Q6F
— Daniel Suárez (@Daniel_SuarezG) August 29, 2021
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