By Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
Bubba Wallace helped the upstart 23XI Racing team convert its first top-five finish Sunday in the NASCAR Cup Series. Having team co-founder and NBA legend Michael Jordan on hand for at least part of the Pocono Raceway weekend festivities? Perhaps some of his renowned competitive drive rubbed off.
Wallace opened the second half of the Cup Series season with the organization’s best result to date, coaxing enough fuel out of his No. 23 Toyota for a fifth-place finish in the Explore the Pocono Mountains 350. His previous best this season was an 11th-place result at Dover International Speedway back in May.
The effort provided a much-needed confidence boost for Wallace, who — instead of directly lauding his impeccable gas mileage — gave credit to the crew that Jordan and co-owner Denny Hamlin assembled for 23XI in its debut season. “Having the right people on top of the (pit) box,” Wallace said, tipping his cap to crew chief Mike Wheeler, engineer J.R. Houston and spotter Freddie Kraft by name. He went the final 47 laps without stopping, one more lap than eventual race-winner Kyle Busch.
“They were just telling me 80% (throttle) here, match lap times with the other guys,” Wallace said, citing help with fuel-saving efforts. “I knew we were in a worse position than the 18 (Busch), so we were just racing our race and I was doing as best as I could. But all in all, really solid weekend. Great race for DraftKings in their first race on our Camry is the first top five for our team. That’s a little pen-to-the-paper action to get them to re-sign, but all in all, just happy with how the weekend went.
“Smooth sailing for the most part today. It was a little bit tricky. Perseverance. We got through it, and I’m proud of everybody.”
Wallace led three laps Sunday during a green-flag pit cycle, putting his No. 23 atop the leaderboard for the first time in nine races. He also broke an odd trend of scoring 14th-place finishes in three of the last four Cup Series events.
If Jordan’s influence as a fierce competitor is starting to take hold at 23XI, so might be the ties to Joe Gibbs Racing through its technical alliance. Though Hendrick Motorsports remains the front-running organization with six consecutive wins before Busch’s streak-snapper, Sunday showed there are gains to be had from the Toyota camp — Wallace included.
“It’s just a matter of getting closer and having — you can’t always have a perfect race car, but getting closer to that 10 out of 10 type race car that you can have at the race track,” Busch said of Wallace and 23XI. “That’s what is going to give you success, put you in those positions. Yes, he’s in our (team) meetings, he’s in there all the time. When we talk and stuff, especially earlier in the season when they didn’t have much communication yet started, he would say, ‘Look, I had a four out of 10 car today. I had a six out of 10 car, seven,’ whatever it might have been. I bet you we get in the meeting (Monday) and he’s going to talk highly on his car. That’s going to be a step in the right direction for that bunch, for sure.”
The boost in morale is intangible, but Sunday’s finish also gave Wallace & Co. something more measurable numbers-wise. The 27-year-old driver also savored a rise in the Cup Series standings, helping him jump three spots into a share of 19th place with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Seven races remain in the regular season, and Wallace sits a still-daunting 54 points back of the 16th and final berth in the provisional playoff picture — a spot currently held by former series champion Kurt Busch. More results like Sunday’s will be needed to achieve one of 23XI’s preseason goals, which could determine if the top-five run at Pocono stands out as a building block or a blip.
“We wanted the playoffs when we started the season. We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Wallace said. “We know that we are in a hole, but it’s finishes like that, that we have to capitalize on the speed in our cars. Today shows what we can do. We’ve got to keep up the momentum.”