NASCAR Cup Series
(VIDEO) Tony Stewart Talks Double Duty
Jun 30, 2022
"Thankful for the opportunity and thankful to 'shut the hell up' for a lot of people."
For Bubba Wallace, standing on the frontstretch under the start-finish line at Kansas Speedway with checkered flag in hand, it was the kind of victory that eases the pain from a chip that was deeply embedded into the shoulder and only made worse from last October when his first win came in rain-shortened fashion at Talladega.
This time is obviously different, right?
"It's not raining."
It’s not raining.
It’s not a superspeedway race.
It’s not a fluke or whatever else anyone could lobby at Wallace or crew chief Bootie Barker.
Barker says it has been a pleasure working with Wallace over the past two seasons and he is incredibly proud of his progression as a driver. Barker also recognizes that chip in his shoulder and how there won’t be an asterisk to be found on Racing Reference or The Third Turn database years down the road.
Not for this one.
"We knew how good Bubba could be and how good he has been this year, so I feel very happy for him in the fact that we took it to ‘em," Barker said. "What are you going to say? What can you throw rocks at us about this time?
"I'm just really happy for our whole organization and especially Bubba for how we did it."
How they did it was leading the final 58 laps after taking the lead the hard way from a dominant Alex Bowman (107 laps led) inside 100 to go, while holding on through lapped traffic on a lengthy green flag run, and keeping boss man Denny Hamlin two seconds back for much of the final 30 laps.
That Wallace ultimately beat Hamlin was especially rewarding for both drivers in a way. It’s actually the second time that the 23XI Racing No. 45 beat Hamlin for a win at Kansas as Kurt Busch drove the car to Victory lane in the spring.
In this moment, Hamlin is actually more disappointed for his Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 team that they didn’t win, but he suspects the impact of the moment will come at some point.
And make no mistake, Hamlin didn’t let him win, as the 11 team really needs all the bonus points they can get in the championship. Hamlin said on pit road that anyone who expects to be handed a win might as well quit.
"There's no way that Bubba ever expects me to give him anything," Wallace said. "He wants to know that he went out here and earned the win today and that it was not given to him.
"My lap times those last 20 laps proved that I was giving it every single bit that I had, but he just out-executed us, out-track-positioned us, and out-cared us today."
It might be later on Sunday night or Monday morning but that will mean more to Hamlin the team owner when Hamlin the driver gives up the headspace.
His business partner and good friend, Michael Jordan, who has been to at least a dozen races but not this one, also feels the same way according to Hamlin. It was the decision to form this team with Wallace as its anchor justified.
"Ultimately, Michael believes in the people that he hires," Hamlin said. "Even though he says, ‘okay, let's go ahead and start a race team,’ it's still no-go until you have the backing of Curtis (Polk) and that whole team. We can't thank them enough for what they do for our team.
"They really taught me a lot on the business side. I continue to learn on it. It's my responsibility to make sure these cars go fast. Pressing all the right buttons, hiring all the right people to make sure says we win races."
And while the victory could get lost in the shuffle of the Cup Series playoffs, Wallace actually moved one step closer to his own championship and the one that actually pays the most in the owner’s championship. When Kurt Busch was forced to step aside for an indefinite amount of time, Hamlin made the decision to take the entire No. 23 team, including Wallace and Barker to the No. 45 to chase that championship.
The No. 45 is in that playoff by virtue of the Busch victory at Kansas earlier this season, and Hamlin knew that combination was up the challenge.
"I remember the conversation that Denny pulled me aside down in Florida," Wallace recalled, "And he goes, 'Hey, we want you to drive the 45 and compete for a championship. We believe in you.' It's 'continue to do what we do.' I didn't walk away from that being, like, 'Oh, man, we got to ramp it up here.' We've been stellar. We've been really, really good. …
"That's what we need to continue to do. Yeah, it's going to ramp up as we get closer to Phoenix, but right now we're focused on Bristol, and that's it."
Hamlin says he, Jordan, Polk and competition director Mike Wheeler have a five year plan to becoming a championship caliber organization. The hiring of Tyler Reddick was just another brick in that foundation. Even in this moment, he still knows there are more bricks, pipes and walls to build.
"I’m the realist in the group, knowing that we still have a ton of ground to cover, but we're starting to really get the results that this hard work is starting to pay off," Hamlin said.
"We've got a lot of great things in the works in a few years. Hopefully you're going to talk about this team winning on a more regular basis, but never in my wildest dreams would I imagine that we would go out there and have three wins already in just a year and three-quarters."
And for Wallace, that meant taking that chip in his already previously injured shoulder and manifesting it in a positive direction. It meant maintaining the conviction that he belonged with this team, at the front of the field and even in a playoff battle.
"I had shoulder surgery right after the season, and I didn't get much testing, but I told myself going in that I needed to step up and do a better job and push the car to its limits," Wallace said.
"If you don't do that, you don't know where the limits of the car is at. ... We've been doing a good job. The results have not shown that, but if I take a minute and brag about self, this is my best season ever of climbing in the race car and being, like, "All right, pal, it's time to go to work, and you leave it all out there and not regret any decision that you make.'
"Look how we've been running. It all starts with self. If you don't show up with confidence, then you're not going to run very good, so you definitely have to show up with that."
And with that, there are no more asterisks and no more rocks. Wallace and 23XI Racing have taken that next step.