NASCAR: 2023 is canary in the coal mine season for Wallace

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - FEBRUARY 15: Bubba Wallace, driver of the #23 McDonald’s Toyota, speaks to the media during the NASCAR Cup Series 65th Annual Daytona 500 Media Day at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 15, 2023, in Daytona Beach, Florida. Photo: James Gilbert/Getty Images

While it’s probably not make-or-break time yet, 2023 is the canary in the coal mine season for Bubba Wallace.

Bubba Wallace walked into the drivers’ meeting room at Daytona International Speedway, Wednesday, to speak to the media for Daytona 500 media day. He’s “the most excited” he’s ever been to start a new NASCAR season.

“The confidence is high. I’m excited. You cross your fingers and toes to hopefully be able to make it out in one piece this race, and then when we get to the West Coast, it is like it’s on now.”

Of course, as one of NASCAR’s most polarizing figures, he races under a greater spotlight than most drivers. Most of it undeserved, but just as much deserved. While 2023 may not be a make-or-break season, it could be the canary in the coal mine season for Wallace’s career.

The Good

Wallace enters the 2023 Cup Series season coming off his career-best year in 2022. He more than tripled his top-10 finishes from 2021 (10), led 2.5 times more laps than in 2021 (150), won his first career pole, and silenced his critics with a victory at Kansas Speedway.

He almost swept Kansas in 2022, before a mistake by his pit crew on his final stop dropped him down the order. However, Wallace managed to rally back to finish 10th. A recurring trend that reached its boiling point at Nashville Superspeedway, when he berated his crew over the radio for yet another botched stop.

Wallace scored 80% of his top-10 finishes after Nashville, thanks to the shuffling of crew members (though he stumbled out of the gate). And it’s part of why his confidence for 2023 is sky-high.

“We saw our weaknesses and we made changes to improve those weaknesses and I’m excited about the changes that we made throughout the offseason. We’ve got a really good group of guys that are pitting our three cars and just carrying that vibe and attitude throughout the whole year is exciting changes.”

The Bad

Of course, for as many times as Wallace’s crew dropped the ball, he under-performed just as often. If Wallace wasn’t up front, he mired around mid-field most weeks, finishing multiple laps down. In fact, he digressed in how many races he finished on the lead lap, with 19 vs. 21 in 2021.

Plus, he purposefully wrecked Kyle Larson at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, for which NASCAR parked him for a race, and gave such a laughable “I didn’t mean to” schpeel, after he walked out of the care center.

What’s more, he failed to make the playoffs in both 2021 and 2022, thanks to wins that came in the playoffs. While his teammate, Kurt Busch, qualified with his win at Kansas, before a qualifying wreck at Pocono Raceway sidelined him for the rest of the season with a concussion.

Furthermore, after his breakout season in 2022, Tyler Reddick jumped ship a year early to take over the No. 45 Toyota at 23XI Racing. His sky-high expectations trickled over to Wallace, too, and he knows it. Given Wallace likely enters a contract season either this year or next, he must win now. Especially before the playoffs.

“A lot of people have expectations, so do we. Especially me. I think that we have to win at the right time.”

Moreover, if there’s a repeat of as many different winners this season as 2022 (although doubtful), he may need multiple wins. Wallace noted,

“One win, five wins – whatever it is between that, just have to do it at the right time and then you set yourself up for the postseason. As long as you can carry that momentum into the postseason, we should be okay. Let’s get one and then we can talk about multiple.”

Though it’s probably not do-or-die time, yet, performing now makes life easier down the road.

Featured Image Credit: James Gilbert/Getty Images