Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud at Kansas: Bubba Wallace’s NASCAR Career Takes Big Step Forward

What happened?

Bubba Wallace held onto the lead for a long, final green flag run at Kansas Speedway to take his second career NASCAR Cup Series victory and first of 2022 on Sunday, Sept. 11. Denny Hamlin, Christopher Bell, Alex Bowman and Martin Truex Jr rounded out the top five.

The win marks the first time a non-playoff driver has won the first two races of the postseason since the inception of the modern era championship format in 2004. Wallace is also the 18th different winner of 2022.

How did it happen?

Bowman led 105 laps, earned the stage two victory and appeared to be on his way to scoring the upset by winning his second race of 2022. The victory would have solidified the Arizonian into the Round of 12 of this year’s playoffs.

Too bad Wallace interfered.

In the final stage, the 28-year-old found himself inside the top five. With laps winding down, the No. 45 team gained position after position as the 23XI Racing Toyota found speed late in the race.

With 67 laps to go, Wallace made his way around the Hendrick Motorsports driver to take the lead. Suddenly, the idea of him earning a second career Cup victory became very real.

Of course, a lot can happen in 67 laps. After all, there had been nine cautions leading up to that point of the race with six of them being unscheduled. In other words, there were plenty of opportunities for a yellow flag to bunch the field back together again.

Except, the yellow banner never flew again on Sunday afternoon.

See also
Bubba Wallace Once Again a Playoff Spoiler, Wins Cup Race at Kansas

After a well-handled pit stop by his crew, all the driver of the No. 45 had to do was hold off any challengers for the lead the remainder of the race. Two of those potential challengers were Wallace’s pseudo-teammates Bell and Hamlin.

Despite a late-race charge from fellow Toyotas, time ran out for the Joe Gibbs Racing duo and Wallace maintained his composure long enough to win his first Cup race under green flag conditions.

Who stood out?

Before the Wallace charge, Bowman was having an uncharacteristically dominant day. But it didn’t come without some misfortune first.

The HMS driver began the race in third and took the lead early on lap 3.

The No. 48 continued to lead for another 24 laps before fellow playoff driver Tyler Reddick took the spot away. Bowman eventually faded to third and hovered in the top five while the Richard Childress Racing driver clicked laps off as the leader. That was, until Reddick’s tire blew on lap 66, eliminating the No. 8 team from contention while the field came to pit road.

Bowman had the opportunity to retake the lead with what was a decent pit stop. Instead, the HMS car collided with another playoff driver in the form of Chase Briscoe.

The collision cost Bowman plenty of track position and saw him drop outside of the top 10. However, by the end of stage two, the No. 48 had worked itself back into not only the top five but into winning contention. The Arizonian won stage two and appeared to have the fastest car heading into the final stage.

A late Toyota charge led by Wallace saw Bowman relegated to fourth place by race’s end. It wasn’t another win for the Showman, but it was nonetheless a strong performance that proved he can contend in this year’s playoffs when so many had counted him out.

Above everything else, it was also a solid points day. The HMS driver now rests comfortably in sixth in the standings, 30 points above the cut line after posting back-to-back top 10s to open the playoffs.

Who fell flat?

There were a plethora of playoff drivers that found themselves in trouble one way or the other on Sunday. Let’s start with the one who now finds himself close to a must-win scenario for Bristol Motor Speedway next week.

Kevin Harvick was heated last weekend at Darlington Raceway in more ways than one, but at least he was still within striking distance of the top 12 in points afterward.

However, Sunday’s race has taken Happy’s playoff situation from adverse to downright bleak.

His day ended almost as soon as it started on lap 35. Harvick was riding behind Wallace and fellow playoff driver Ross Chastain. While attempting to pass Wallace, Chastain drifted up from the bottom of the track and held Wallace wide. When he did, Wallace slowed on the outside and forced the No. 4 of Harvick to release the gas, getting the Stewart-Haas Racing driver loose and sending him into the wall.

Despite the team’s best efforts, its day was done, and Harvick’s hauler had already left the speedway before the end of stage one. He still sits last in the playoff standings, now in a 35-point hole below the cut line.

Shortly after, it was Reddick’s turn to see his day end early.

The RCR driver was leading and dominant before his tire was cut flat on lap 66.

It was similar to what we saw at the 1.5-mile speedway earlier this year in May when the No. 8 also cut a tire while running up front. Reddick still sits inside the top 12 in the standings but with only a two-point cushion above the cut line. It was another missed opportunity for another playoff driver, and he wasn’t the last.

Shortly after him, there was the plight of Kyle Busch.

During a pit stop in the middle of stage two, the No. 18 was hit with an equipment interference violation that sent him to the back of the field.

Busch, frustrated, continued to play damage control as the race went on. However, only a few laps later, the two-time Cup champion found himself spinning on the frontstretch.

The JGR driver wasn’t able to recover and ended the day in 26th. After two bad races in a row, Busch sits 13th in the standings, two points below the bubble.

There’s a lot to be said about the mishaps of these playoff drivers, but the largest short-term impact is how it will affect each driver’s outlook for Bristol next week.

Technically, none of them are in a must-win situation. However, with the margin from 10th to 15th being only 15 points, there’s a good chance that even the tiniest mistake at the Last Great Colosseum could prove fatal for the bubble playoff drivers.

See also
Playoff Drivers Continue Opening Round Woes at Kansas

What did this race prove?

Just for a moment, let’s drop the talk about all of the events that placed Wallace into the mainstream media in 2020.

For now, let’s just talk about Wallace as a driver. Or more specifically, a Cup Series driver.

For one reason or another, many have shunned Wallace and have considered him unworthy of a Cup ride, writing him off as somebody who earned their ride based on ethnicity rather than talent.

Each success for the Alabaman always came with an asterisk. His win at Talladega Superspeedway last year was, after all, rain-shortened, and thus did not count in the eyes of the NASCAR fandom.

But on Sunday, there was no excuse to conjure. Wallace did not inherit the lead with some creative pit strategy, nor did he win after most of the field had wrecked out in some largely attritional superspeedway race. No, he didn’t even earn it because of rain.

On Sunday, Wallace earned his win. He qualified well and ran up front for the majority of the race, including leading 58 of the final 68 laps. Those 10 laps he didn’t lead? It was during a round of green flag pit stops.

Even before the triumph on Sunday, 2022 was, statistically speaking, the 28-year-old’s best year of his Cup Series career. With seven top 10s and four top fives, his sophomore year with 23XI Racing has proven more successful than his first.

That goes without mentioning the many times Wallace was close to winning this year already. That includes the Daytona 500 in February, where he finished second to Austin Cindric, or when he finished second to Harvick at Michigan International Speedway in August.

That’s also without mentioning the fact Wallace had already earned his first career win almost a year ago at Talladega Superspeedway in a rain-shortened event last October. It’s one that saw him become the first African-American to win at NASCAR’s highest level since Wendell Scott in 1963.

But even then, in the eyes of many race fans, it still wasn’t enough.

For many, the only thing that could truly justify Wallace’s position in the highest level of NASCAR racing was a win. Not just any win, either. A green flag, non-superspeedway, non-rain-delayed win. And on Sunday, he finally earned it.

It won’t quiet all of the criticism that the 23XI Racing driver has or will receive, by far. But then again, all Cup drivers face criticism in one way or another.

That’s just it, though. All Cup drivers face those doubters. Wallace has earned that right to be among their ranks, and nobody can take that from him.

Better than last time?

Really, Kansas seemed like more of the same — flat tires and all. That’s not entirely a bad thing.

First, there was always an X-factor in play on Sunday. That X-factor being poor tire wear.

The 400-mile event on Sunday produced more of the same of what it did back in May, with multiple drivers facing tire issues that saw races ruined through the resulting contact damaging some internal part or another.

Despite the tire issues, however, Kansas provided another wonderful venue to showcase the parity and competitiveness of the Next Gen car.

In terms of leaders, Sunday was on par with what we saw in May. There were 10 drivers and 19 lead changes then compared to 12 drivers and 16 lead changes in September.

Bottom line, the new package has given NASCAR fans a respite from the frustrating 550-horsepower version we have seen the last couple of years, showcased more at the once loathed cookie-cutter circuits.

Instead, with multiple grooves and a new package allowing drivers to showcase their talent rather than their speed, tracks like Kansas have proven to be exciting and even anticipated.

Paint scheme of the race

There were a few patriotic paint schemes adorning cars at Kansas during the 21st anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but there was only one making a debut.

While a red, white and blue color scheme is fun to see every now and then, seeing new ones is a little more exciting too.

No, it doesn’t feature any revolutionary or groundbreaking designs, but there was always the option for Root Insurance to fly its usual orange colors on Wallace’s Toyota. Instead, however, the company chose to run a special design for an otherwise solemn day.

In other words, they didn’t forget. Neither will we.

What’s next?

For four Cup drivers, their title hopes will end on a concrete short track.

The Cup Series travels to Bristol Motor Speedway for its only pavement race of the year. The venue will host the Cup Series’ first playoff elimination race of 2022 with the running of the Bass Pro Shops Night Race. Cup qualifying begins on Friday, Sept. 16 at 5:20 p.m. ET with the race televised live on USA Network on Saturday, Sept. 17 at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Follow @PitLaneLT

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: KANSAS

About the author

Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021 after a staff writing position with IMSA. A race fan since he was three years old, he began freelance writing in 2018 and graduated with a B.S. in Communications from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.

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kb

…Time will tell.

Bill B

Agree that this was truly a win for Bubba with no asterisk. He had the best car and he and his team executed flawlessly the whole day. I am surprised that no one had mentioned that 23XI swept the Kansas races this year. I wonder if that was the same car Busch won with in the spring. If so, they might want to keep that car under wraps until the next Kansas race.

I can’t speak for anyone else but myself, but my only problem with Bubba is the attention he gets from the media when he doesn’t do anything spectacular. This week it’s warranted, go for it, write 100 Bubba-centric articles if you want to.

As for the playoff contenders, they are so intent on proving they are the best, that they make unwise decisions and stupid mistakes. If this was the round of 8, I could understand it more than in the first round. In the first round you probably just need 3 top 10s to advance, especially if you are one of the top seeds. Run smart and let the other guys make mistakes, you don’t need to win, but every year we see the same foolishness.

Last edited 2 months ago by Bill B
DoninAjax
Bill B

I get your point and agree that it’s stupid to have 17 listed but I am sure it’s because there is no way to differentiate the cars eligible for the real championship vs. the owner’s championship. The 45 is eligible for the latter.

Right now the owner’s championship standings are: 20, 24, 11, 22, 45, 48, 9, 5, 1, 99. I imagine we’d be used to this if a driver eligible for the real championship dropped out more often but it is extremely rare.

Last edited 2 months ago by Bill B
DoninAjax

I guess NA$CAR found a way to keep Bubba on TV! Imagine That!!!!

Kevin in SoCal

“The Cup Series travels to Bristol Motor Speedway for its only asphalt race of the year.”

You mean concrete?

The fans turned on Bubba after his whining about the noose that was just a rope at Talladega.

Tom Bowles

Hi Kevin,

Good catch. The correction has been made; thanks for being such a dedicated reader and fan of the Frontstretch. We apologize for the error.

-Tom B.

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