Bubba Wallace adds to playoff cushion on emotional day at Richmond

Emotions ran high for Bubba Wallace on a steamy Sunday at Richmond Raceway, starting with a fitting tribute to the family of an associate and friend and ending with a generous gathering of points, but a finish that could have been even greater.

Wallace padded the advantage over his fellow NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs hopefuls in Sunday’s Cook Out 400, leading 80 laps and netting 16 extra points with top-five finishes in both stages. His 23XI Racing No. 23 Toyota was shuffled back on a final restart, and Wallace settled for a 12th-place result.

The outcome helped him remain in 15th place in the provisional playoff picture, now 54 points clear of the elimination line — doubling his pre-race margin.

“Good points day,” he told his No. 23 group over the team communications on the cool-down lap, punctuating his last radio transmission with a heavy sigh.

Hearts were heavy, too, for the team from the start. Freddie Kraft, Wallace’s longtime spotter, missed Sunday’s race after the death of his father earlier in the week. Wallace taped over his name on the driver’s door before the race, replacing it with Tommy Kraft’s name in Sharpie. Kraft’s fellow spotters marked off his place in the spotters’ stand, and Wallace also paid tribute to Kraft and his family over the radio in pace laps.

“Once I get past the frustration, I know it was a really good day for us,” Wallace said on pit road post-race. “Emotional day. I just happened to look right at the door. Freddie’s dad passed away, so racing with a lot there. He was driving the s— out of it. You know, I told him at the start of the race, like I’m just gonna sit back and let him wheel it, and man, we were awesome.”

The strength of the performance was company-wide as 23XI Racing dominated the first half of the event. Tyler Reddick’s No. 45 23XI Toyota led every lap in Stage 1 from the pole position, and Wallace moved up from his fifth starting spot to take second at the green-checkered flag. The two teammates traded places at the start of Stage 2, and Wallace headed the field at a track where he’d only led one lap in 10 previous Cup Series starts.

His edge faltered slightly during a Stage 2 pit stop when the car failed to lift off the jack during the right-side tire change. Even with the extra time on pit road, Wallace recovered and still finished fourth at the break, telling his crew: “10-4, we’re fine. Let me work, it’ll come back to us.”
“Good day, but we were better than that,” said No. 23 crew chief Robert “Bootie” Barker. “We made a mistake. We still make some mistakes. I wish we’d get rid of those, but we’re getting better. But overall, a good day.”
Said Wallace: “Just had a hiccup of a pit stop, but just never really rebounded, recovered. Like, balance just went away. Man, it’s just hard. This place is tough, you know, finding the right line and the right balance, and we just fell off of it. So, one of the best here had the worst (final) restart — Harvick — and held us up, unfortunately, but it is what it is. We finished 12th. All in all, a good points day today. I don’t know where we’re at. We’ve got a pretty good gap, I’m assuming, so it’s good day.”

That margin provides some breathing room on a day when his closest pursuers had trouble. Michael McDowell remained in the 16th and final provisional playoff spot, and his buffer over the elimination line remained steady — now plus-18 and gaining a point on the outsiders — though he lost ground to Wallace.

McDowell led briefly for nine laps during a shake-up of pit sequences when the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team opted for a one-stop strategy in the second stage (Laps 70-230), while most other competitors favored a two-stop plan. McDowell went from an 11th-place finish in Stage 1 to 23rd and one lap down by the end of Stage 2, with a sluggish stop compounding the lost ground. He finished 22nd.

“We had a way faster car than we’ve had in Richmond, and I think I just screwed it up, so I apologize to everybody who likes the 34 team,” said Travis Peterson, No. 34 crew chief, who said his wife had provided him a quick post-race update on where McDowell and the team now stood in his playoff pursuit. “… We didn’t really lose a lot of to the cut, and then we lost a lot to Bubba, and that’s where we needed to stay closer. I think we were looking at top 15, no problem. Like I said, I’m a little baffled at the moment why it didn’t work for us, but obviously, it didn’t. We had a fast enough car, we should’ve just done what everybody else did, and we’d have been fine. Definitely hurts right now. I gotta get back and digest it, but yeah.”

Other pursuers fared worse. Daniel Suárez started 33rd and ended there, running four laps off the pace at the end after his involvement in the race’s only on-track incident that prompted a caution flag. AJ Allmendinger, who started last after skipping Saturday’s qualifying for an Xfinity Series engagement at Road America, managed only a 27th-place run. Those troubles allowed rookie Ty Gibbs to move into the first spot out — 18 points back after his 15th-place Richmond finish — with four regular-season races remaining before the 16-driver postseason field is determined.

Both Wallace and McDowell were also helped by a playoff-clinching first victory of the season from Chris Buescher, who was ahead of them both in the standings — another factor that the No. 23 team kept close watch over with Sunday’s laps and the regular season winding down.

“I’m always aware,” Barker said.

Zack Albert