Bubba Wallace's first impulse was to key his radio and say exactly what he was thinking in the moment: "It's always something."
In the elimination race for the Round of 12 at the Charlotte Roval, Wallace was running well and putting up a fight as he tried to stave off elimination and continue his maiden run in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. Then, it all came undone with 22 laps to go when Wallace was tagged from behind and spun in a chain reaction. Instantly, the lost track position put the No. 23 team in a hole that couldn't be recovered from in just 20 laps -- for all practical purposes, their playoffs had ended right there in the backstretch chicane.
The first reaction Wallace had, however, was followed by something unexpected: He laughed and blew off the hand he was dealt.
"Of course I was pissed, I drove angry the rest of the race. But it was a different type of pissed off," Wallace told CBS Sports. "It wasn't just to get out and throw a tantrum and show your ass on national TV, which I've done a handful of times. But it was just accepting the moment, that it wasn't meant to be, and moving on and just focusing on next weekend.
"As robotic and square as that sounds, I mean that in the most honest way. What are you gonna do? You can't go back and change the results. Nothing that you do after the moment is gonna change what happened. So you have to accept it and move on."
The final laps at the Roval, and a post-race debrief among the No. 23 team on pit road that was far more collegial than it was mournful, encapsulated what has become Wallace's coming-of-age season as a NASCAR Cup Series star. And it came at a literal coming-of-age moment: The elimination race at the Roval came on Wallace's 30th birthday, turning the page from mercurial and challenging twenties to what's set to come in his thirties.
From the time he turned 20 in October 2013 -- and won his first NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race just weeks later at Martinsville -- Wallace experienced many of the same things that other young men do in their formative adult years. There were periods of success followed by periods where he struggled to establish himself. Wallace battled depression, self-doubt and self-pity, then experienced moments of affirmation where he proved to himself he could.
The difference between Wallace and other young men, however, is that his personal development played out in the public eye for all to see and included several unique variables.
Not only is Wallace arguably the most prominent product of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program -- and has taken on a stance of advocacy for African-Americans and everything that goes with it -- but he also does not bother to carry two different personas. Wallace values his individuality and does not hide his true self -- regardless of whether people are willing to accept that.
"I think in your twenties you're still trying to find your way: Who you are as a person, what your purpose is in life," Wallace said. "I think now it's a little bit more clear of what's going on. Obviously it can change in a heartbeat so you can't get complacent, but just accepting where you're at in your journey and in your part of life, and being OK with that. Trying to make it better and better each and every day.
"It's less of having that chip on your shoulder and more just taking what life will give you and making the most of it every day."
That level of security has played a large role in Wallace's maturation both behind and beyond the wheel. And just as he himself has matured, so too has the race team around him.
As 23XI Racing has grown into a race-winning, playoff-contending team near the end of its third season, Wallace's No. 23 team has become a fixture at the top of the speed charts and inside the top 10. Continuity and chemistry has played a major role in that, as Wallace's crew -- led by veteran crew chief Bootie Barker -- has remained more or less intact since their first win together at Talladega in fall 2021.
The level of camaraderie was directly compared by Wallace to his days driving for Richard Petty Motorsports, when he had a small but tight-knit race team. And the dynamic is one that fits his fancy.
"It's very 'let loose and have fun with each other'. Everybody in the shop gets along with each other," Wallace said. "It's not a buttoned-up, suit-and-tie environment, which I do not strive in – others may. But for this place and what we have, people can come in and feel like they're at home and be themselves and get their work done. It's still a very professional environment, don't get me wrong, but you don't feel so stuffy. And that's massive for us.
"And just on the 23 team, I continue to push for that each and every day. The relationship that Bootie and I have is very fun. We are very hard on each other, but in a motivating way on how we can both be better and show up better the next week."
The 2023 season has offered a clear objective on how to be better in 2024. There have been missed opportunities for wins, leading to Wallace having to sweat out the regular-season finale at Daytona to become the 16th and final driver in the playoffs. While 2023 has amounted to the best year of his Cup career for all practical purposes, winning and winning early is the next step Wallace and his race team must take to truly be regarded as among NASCAR's best.
"We do a lot of things – including myself – to take us out of contention early in a lot of races," Wallace said. "We've got to show up better and show up ready to win and not set ourselves behind, and capitalize on opportunities that others may fall on.
"I think winning cures everything. You can go and relax for a little bit. But we've just got to stop making it so damn hard on ourselves."
This weekend at Martinsville, Wallace will return to one of his best racetracks with a special paint scheme for the Xfinity 500. Wallace's Xfinity Toyota will feature the selfies of 65 Xfinity Rewards members who were chosen in a sweepstakes to have their likenesses featured in the penultimate race of the NASCAR Cup Series season. Wallace has two career wins at Martinsville in Truck Series competition, including his very first victory in any NASCAR national touring series in fall 2013.
"Excited for the Rewards Members to have a little mosaic paint scheme. Really fun for them to get to spotlight a lot of people that necessarily wouldn't know that they're on a racecar," Wallace said. "So it's all fun, and it makes it special that we're going to a place that I really love and I hold near and dear to my heart.
"Martinsville should be a really good weekend. Xfinity, like I said, does a lot for the sport and a lot for our team and we're just getting started."