For Bubba Wallace, the expectations have arrived. Starting his second season at 23XI Racing, the fifth-year driver from Alabama has a season’s worth of experience with the still-new team and a NASCAR Cup Series victory to his name. Based on the continued growth of the 23XI operation around him, it’s now time to see how high Wallace can go.
Wallace, 28, made NASCAR history last season when he won the rain-shortened Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway in October, becoming the first black driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series event since Wendell Scott in 1963. It was an iconic moment for Wallace and NASCAR, but for a team co-founded by NBA legend Michael Jordan and Wallace’s fellow competitor Denny Hamlin, it was viewed as just the start for the budding No. 23 operation.
Fortunately for Wallace, it’s clear that 23XI Racing isn’t simply hoping he can carry them on his own.
This season, Wallace will officially become a driver on a multi-car team for the first time in his Cup career when Kurt Busch joins him as the pilot of 23XI’s new No. 45 Toyota. Busch, the 2004 Cup champion and 33-race winner, brings more than 750 Cup starts of experience to 23XI — plus a streak of appearances in NASCAR’s postseason dating to 2013. And fortunately for Busch, 23XI management was able to secure a Cup charter in the hotly contested market, bringing guaranteed starting spots and financial resources to the two-car, two-year-old team.
For Wallace’s fifth full-time season at NASCAR’s top level, 23XI removed the interim tag on crew chief Robert “Bootie” Barker for 2022. Barker took over the role when Mike Wheeler moved to 23XI’s competition director position last season and was on the pit box when Wallace scored the big win.
“Bootie and I clicked from the start,” said Wallace in a team statement last fall. “He’s been a great addition to the No. 23 team, and in just the short time he’s been the crew chief, he’s helped me on and off the track to be better every time I get in the car.”
Barker’s return — as well as additional hiring by 23XI for race engineering and operations — should offer Wallace some helpful continuity as he crosses 150 total Cup Series starts this season.
So far, Wallace’s Cup career has tallied one win, six top 5s and 12 top 10s. It’s not unreasonable to think he’ll be expected to match those career totals with his 2022 results. If Wallace can turn in a season that includes five top-5 finishes and 10 top 10s, it’ll be hard for him to miss the postseason field on points alone.
But taking that next step is the hard part. Aside from his Talladega win last season, Wallace’s final stat line didn’t move significantly from his 2020 season with Richard Petty Motorsports. His year-over-year average position edged up to 20th (+1.3), and his average finish moved to 19.7 (+1.4), with fewer top-10 finishes (-2). He was outside the top 16 in points after the first month.
But the stat that Wallace can build on from last season was the significant shift in his time spent racing inside the top 15. In 2020, Wallace spent just 21.3 percent of laps inside the first 15 positions. Last year? That jumped to 34 percent of all laps — a gain of more than 1,000 laps cumulatively. It’s a number that reflects the improved equipment and preparation offered by the developing 23XI Racing team — and the opportunity at hand for Wallace.