LONG POND, Pa. — After his best run of the season, Bubba Wallace hugged, fist-pounded and slapped hands with crew members by his car Sunday at Pocono Raceway.
Then Wallace walked over to his pit stall and did the same with his pit crew.
Although it wasn’t a win, Wallace’s fifth-place finish was a moment worth celebrating.
The finish marked the first top-10 result for 23XI Racing and came with team co-owner Michael Jordan in attendance.
“He understands,” Wallace said of Jordan’s grounded mindset for the first-year team. “Everybody talks about he’s a winner, he’s a champion, yeah, but he’s also a realistic person.
“He wants to win, for sure, but he knows what it’s going to take for us to get there. It’s more from me. It’s more from the team. It’s more of a group effort.
“He’s in the background watching and enjoying. He’s hooked. Having Michael Jordan hooked to NASCAR is huge and that’s getting a lot of other big names hooked as well and that’s what the sport needs. We’ll keep on doing on our own thing, keep plugging along.”
That aspect of more from the team and Wallace will be key with the second half of the 36-race season beginning Sunday.
Wallace and crew chief Mike Wheeler have said the team has had good cars but execution has been off in races, a reason why Wallace’s average finish was 21.0 entering the Pocono doubleheader weekend.
“Bubba has put a lot on his shoulders of having mistakes or running too hard, running into somebody,” Wheeler said. “A lot of our good cars early in the race would be damaged and he’s like, ‘I got to stop doing that,’ and (co-owner) Denny (Hamlin) would beat him up, too.
“But it’s hard. The moment you don’t have good notes from a certain event, it’s hard to go back with a better race. He’s had to learn. He’s got to learn how to run against these top-end guys all race long, to get that last little bit.
“But we’re working through that. Most drivers don’t come into the sport and make it click right away. They have troublesome years and some races. Again, we’ve had that a lot. This is one of those moments that cold turkey he out-punted his coverage on a fuel-mile race.”
Wallace was set for a good run through the invert after Saturday’s race. He finished 14th Saturday. NASCAR inverted the top 20 for Sunday’s race, meaning Wallace started seventh.
He went on to finish fifth in the first stage. Those were his first stage points since the third stage in last month’s Coca-Cola 600.
Then problems arose.
“It’s so easy to get put in the hornet’s nest here and that’s from 12th to 20th and you’re just rooting and gouging,” Wallace said. “I got into the wall just from getting aero tight – not really anybody’s fault, it’s just a product of racing.
“That kind of put us behind, so we knew we had to pull some strategy. I knew our car was good enough to be top 10 and execute. I didn’t know it was going to come down to a nail-biter with fuel.”
The damage, in a way, proved helpful.
In the second stage, Wheeler went with a fuel only stop on Lap 77 while the crew repaired the damage to the right side of Wallace’s car.
“We knew we wanted to stop (after the end of stage 2) to get four tires and full fuel because we only needed 10 laps of fuel after that,” Wheeler said of the team’s stop on Lap 87. “That would make for a shorter green flag stop in the last stage. With that, we knew we were 10 laps short. (Three) laps (after the green), the caution is out.
“It’s one of those things like ‘take the risk’ because one more caution puts you right in the (fuel) window.”
Wallace made his last pit stop on Lap 94 of the 140-lap race. Wheeler said Wallace was helped being in the middle of the pack at that point because a driver often has to get out of the gas in traffic.
“We knew we were (then) only a couple of laps short,” Wheeler said. “We just had to do extra hard work to save it.”
That goes against a driver’s natural instinct to go fast, but Wallace had no issues going slower.
“A racer wants to win,” Wallace said. “If it’s got to save fuel to win, then hell yeah, I’ll do it. I’m not going against what the engineers say. They’ve got it all calculated out and numbered out to tell me what to do. That’s my job. Tell me what to do and I’ll execute that.”
Now the focus turns to doing it again.
“We wanted the playoffs when we started the season,” Wallace said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. 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.”