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Bubba Wallace 'Relieved' by Securing First-Career Playoff Berth

Bubba Wallace can officially call himself a Playoff contending driver in the NASCAR Cup Series. The 23XI Racing driver described the moment as a relief, and it's an incredible story considering where he was in his career a few years ago.


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Bubba Wallace has done it, and what a relief it was. After a 12th-place effort in Saturday's NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona, the 29-year-old 23XI Racing driver can officially call himself a NASCAR Cup Series Playoff competitor. In a wild race, which featured jarring crashes, and leaders threatening to knock him from Playoff contention with a win.

RELATED: NASCAR Cup Series Driver Point Standings After Daytona

In the past, Wallace very well could have caved due to similar circumstances outside of his control such as what was presented to him on Saturday night. However, this time, Wallace persevered, while others fell by the wayside.

“I’m just relieved. I apologized to my wife (Amanda) all week. I haven’t been myself – I’ve been stressing," Wallace admitted. "Thankful that we are in it. That is the most calm I’ve ever been. It’s ass-backwards. You come to Daytona, and you focus so much on controlling the things that you can control. My stubborn ass never wants to listen to people telling me that. I finally did that, and we are locked in."

It's an emotional achievement for Wallace, because just a few short years ago it looked like his once-promising NASCAR career was on the verge of fizzling out. Then, Aric Almirola was injured in a fiery crash at Kansas Speedway in 2017. The racer, who was looking for work, would receive the call of a lifetime.

Richard Petty Motorsports offered him the fill-in roll in the iconic No. 43 car. It was a four-race opportunity, and Wallace improved with each start. He finished 26th in his NASCAR Cup Series debut at Pocono Raceway, he followed that up with a 19th-place finish at Michigan, he was 15th at Daytona, and he rounded out his substitute stint with an 11th-place effort at Kentucky Speedway.

When Almirola took his talents to Stewart-Haas Racing the following season, RPM came calling and offered Wallace the full-time ride in the No. 43 car.

After three of up-and-down seasons with the Petty team, the opportunity of a lifetime fell into Wallace's lap. Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan would create their own race team -- 23XI Racing, and they wanted Wallace to be the driver of the No. 23 machine. Although Wallace was in Cup thanks to the offer from Petty, he couldn't refuse the opportunity to work with Hamlin and Jordan.

Three years later, Wallace has scored a pair of NASCAR Cup Series victories, and now he is a Playoff contender. Wallace puts this Playoff berth up there with his race wins as his top accomplishments in his racing career.

“[Its] On my Mt. Rushmore," Wallace stated. "I don’t have a lot of things on my Mt. Rushmore. I got two faces with my two wins, I’ll put the this as the third face up there. It’s pretty special. Just relieved. I don’t have much emotion, just relieved, drained mentally. Glad we’ve got the day off tomorrow, because I’ll be hurting on Monday.”

Following Saturday's race, Wallace received a warm embrace from Michael Jordan.

Wallace joins Martin Truex Jr., William Byron, Denny Hamlin, Chris Buescher, Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Ross Chastain, Brad Keselowski, Tyler Reddick, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Kevin Harvick in the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field.

While Wallace experienced the elation of securing his place in the 16-driver NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, 16 other drivers tasted the bitterness of missing out.

None was more painful than Aric Almirola, who truly felt like he had the car under him to win the race on Saturday night, but ultimately came up short with a third-place finish.

"Yeah, disappointing. I knew tonight was our shot," Almirola anguished. "I knew we were going to bring a lot of speed. I knew tonight was going to be our shot. Just didn't make it happen. Frustrated. Really just disappointed, honestly. I don't know. I had a great feeling. I thought we were going to get it done tonight."

While he was feeling every emotion ranging from sad to mad, Almirola gave credit to Chris Buescher and Brad Keselowski for driving a perfect race in the closing laps to seal the deal for their team.

"[Keselowski] and [Buescher] did a phenomenal job staying connected and staying so committed to each other. My hat goes off to them," Almirola stated. "They did a great job. It's never easy to win these races, but it sure is a hell of a lot easier when you have your boss behind you, and he's just as happy to see you win."

Almirola, who has been receiving persistent questioning from the media about whether he will return in 2024 or retire at season's end, will undoubtedly see an even higher uptick in questions in the weeks to come.

Finishing right behind Almirola was Chase Elliott, who missed the Playoff cut for the first-time in his eight-year career.

"I feel like we had an okay chance there, but Brad and the No. 17 just worked so well together there and they were able to stay locked-on," Elliott said. "They were so locked-on there, they just had a strangle-hold on the top lane. Unfortunately, I just couldn't get to Kevin [Harvick] and stay there like that, and just make the bottom lane work. I kind of bottled it up there and just couldn't get enough momentum going forward.

"But it was a valiant effort and I appreciate the effort from everybody -- from the No. 9 team, Team Chevy, Hendrick Motorsports."

Despite the disappointment of missing the Playoffs, the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion wasn't in the mood to sulk. Instead, he focused on the positives, which include gearing up for a strong rebound year in 2024.

"It isn't ideal for me, but the next 10 weeks is an opportunity to get better, and we're going to prepare ourselves for next year," Elliott stated with optimism.

In addition to Almirola and Elliott, Daniel Suarez, Ty Gibbs, Alex Bowman, AJ Allmendinger, Austin Cindric, Justin Haley, Corey LaJoie, Ryan Preece, Todd Gilliland, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, Harrison Burton, Chase Briscoe, and Ty Dillon saw their hopes at making it into the Playoffs evaporate.

For all 16 drivers, who were eliminated on Saturday evening, the next 10 races will be a pivotal stretch. Some of them will be moving to new rides. Some of them will hope to build their current programs up to better contend in 2024. Whatever the situation, all 16 of them want to be on the other side of the cutline next time around.

Photo Credit: Nigel Kinrade, LAT Images, Courtesy of Toyota Racing

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