Analysis: The extent of Bubba Wallace’s ability is still not clear


How good is Bubba Wallace?

It’s a fair question considering the driver’s record. At the Cup Series level, he’s winless across 137 career starts, and while success in auto racing is largely team-dependent — and he spent his first three full seasons with, at times, an underfunded or unsponsored Richard Petty Motorsports — his trajectory towards his current ride at 23XI Racing was never straightforward.

Wallace burst onto the prospect radar 11 years ago, winning in his ARCA East Series debut at Greenville-Pickens Speedway. He went on to win four more times in 21 starts with Rev Racing before signing with Joe Gibbs Racing, a perceived upgrade in equipment, for the 2012 season. He won just once and his average finish dropped by 5.1 positions. It was a curious dip in performance in what should’ve been a breakout campaign.

Turns out, it was the first in a career filled with fits and starts. He won six races in the Truck Series, including four in 2014; however, he secured just six top-five finishes in 86 Xfinity Series starts, most of them in top-flight equipment for JGR and Roush Fenway Racing. His 2017 season with Roush was cut short due to a lack of funding, but from his 13 starts, he ranked seventh in Production in Equal Equipment Rating (with Cup drivers omitted) and third in position retention rate on preferred groove restarts.

Now Wallace is in his fourth full season in Cup, his first for startup 23XI. Whether he’s able to turn his driving ability into tangible results remains a question without a clear answer.

Compared to his 19.8-place average finish, he’s frequenting a running whereabouts (19.2) over half of a position better in the 21st-fastest car, and how he sizes up compared to those in the 19th-28th range is favorable:

Against those within his running range, he’s an above-average producer and restarter, milking short runs as much as he can. His PEER split ranks higher among all drivers in races heavy on restarts (20th) than in races light on cautions (25th) or ending with long green-flag runs (26th). His primary shortcomings are long-run passing and crash avoidance. The former actually represents improvement over 2020, while the latter — he’s averaging 0.36 crashes per race — is a rate beyond the series average (0.26) that’d serve him well to reduce.

It’s apparent that he’s a raw talent filled with inconsistency. This is a maddening scenario, because we’re mostly unsure of the actual extent of his ability, and that wasn’t made clearer this season, even with the move to 23XI, a first-year program stocked with sponsor funding and a level of hype that elevated expectations.

Those expectations may have created an internal eye towards the playoffs, which, if true, makes little sense. The 23XI team is comprised primarily of former Leavine Family Racing employees, those who never produced a car capable of playoff participation. Furthermore, a late start on 2021 — 23XI didn’t settle into a shop until mid-December last year — didn’t allow for much of a jump on the new year in a lame-duck car. The team entered Busch Clash-eligible Ty Dillon into February’s exhibition race, solely for the purpose of “getting reps.”

That the car turned one of the 20 fastest median laps in 10 of 25 races this season should be considered an accomplishment; and yet, races heavily dictated by pit strategy saw decisions made in the name of playoff qualification. At times, good results were sacrificed for the possibility of shock wins, ones that could’ve earned Wallace and 23XI instant postseason eligibility.

The decision of crew chief Mike Wheeler to pit off sequence from the front-runners halted Wallace’s intriguing charge at Phoenix, from 25th to 10th in what registered as the 19th-fastest car in the race, a choice with playoff implications in mind. Comparatively, this call wasn’t an aberration; two weeks earlier at Homestead, Wheeler long-pitted Wallace on a high tire-wear track — a gambit in hopes of lucking into a caution flag and the bounty of track position that followed — but lost three positions as a result, stunting progress for subsequent runs.

On ovals, Wheeler has been a habitual long-pitter, with varied success. There’s a through line from Wheeler’s four-position gain across four green-flag pit cycles in the Coca-Cola 600 to Wallace’s 14th-place finish. The team’s best result to date, a fifth-place finish at Pocono, came in a race influenced by fuel strategy. But interestingly, the common denominator in the majority of the driver’s best outings with competitive speed is a limitation on inventive strategy:

  • Wallace finished 16th at Martinsville, a race without green-flag pit cycles, in the 17th-fastest car.
  • He finished 16th in Atlanta’s spring race, on a high-tire wear track where long-pitting was a universally understood no-no, in a car ranked 19th in median lap time.
  • His second Atlanta start last month saw a 14th-place finish, again, in the 19th-fastest car.

In Wheeler’s defense, an intelligible argument could be made for his aim towards a track-position windfall on green-flag pit cycles. If it worked, it’d tap into the driver’s restarting output — Wallace’s primary strength. But to date, the Cup Series has seen just nine of 25 races with a high caution volume (more than two per 100 miles) and just eight races concluding with at least one late restart, minimizing both the total and timing of restarts.

It’s why several of Wheeler’s Hail-Mary calls were effectively race-killers. When they failed, there weren’t many realistic opportunities for recovery, compounding a problem — Wallace’s adjusted pass differential for the season is 22 positions worse than his statistical expectation — with no solution more immediate than the next restart, hardly a guarantee, furthering the desire to long-pit again.

The “win and in” path to the playoffs has certainly done a number on strategy calls across the series at large, pushing some crew chiefs to toss aside more pragmatic efforts supplementing their respective drivers’ position-getting acumens or lack thereof. The regular season culminates this weekend in Daytona, providing Wallace one final (and somewhat legitimate) chance at playoff qualification, but missing out on championship eligibility may end up being a blessing in disguise for 23XI.

Wheeler’s designs haven’t unanimously been to Wallace’s benefit, but a 10-race slate in which playoff implications are off the table can allow crew chief and driver to synchronize their strengths and weaknesses, helping to understand how good, exactly, this team can be when everyone is optimizing for compatibility.

How good is Bubba Wallace? Is he three positions better than his speed ranking? Is he three positions worse? At times, that answer has been muddied, a result of strategy tailored for a playoff berth. If he fails to qualify through Saturday’s race, the remainder of the season will likely offer more “reps,” ones free of championship consequence, where we may gain that long-awaited clarity.

Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to track

MORE: Dr. Diandra: 600 tests man more than machine

And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”







Dr. Diandra: Charlotte’s 600 miles test man more than machine


This weekend’s 600-mile outing at Charlotte Motor Speedway is NASCAR’s longest race. It’s the ultimate stock car challenge: not just making a car fast but making it fast for a long time.

Although 600 miles is nowhere near the 3,300-plus miles in the 24 Hours of LeMans, the pace is similar. Most of NASCAR’s 600-mile races run between four and five hours.

The 1960 World 600 set the record for this race, requiring five hours, 34 minutes, and six seconds to complete — and it had only eight cautions. The second longest race, the very next year, ran 12 minutes shorter than the previous year’s outing.

The longest race in the modern era (1972 to present) happened in 2005. That race took five hours, 13 minutes, and 52 seconds to complete and set a record for cautions with 22.

Last year’s event was the second-longest modern-era race. With four fewer cautions than 2005, the 2022 race took just 44 seconds less to complete.

The field for the 1960 race included 60 cars. Only 18 of those cars (30%) crossed the finish line.

NASCAR disqualified six drivers for making illegal entrances to pit road. The reasons for the remaining 36 DNFs reads like an inventory of car parts, from “A-frame” to “valve.”

The number of cars failing to finish the race decreased significantly over the years. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was not uncommon for 50-70% of the field to drop out of the race before its end. As the graph below shows, the DNF rate is now in the range of 10-30%.

A bar chart shows how DNFs have decreased over time and turned the the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

Last year — the first year of the Next Gen car — had an abnormally high 46% DNF rate. That doesn’t signify a problem with car reliability.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

Increased car reliability makes people more important

Racecar evolution has changed the nature of NASCAR’s longest race. The car have become so reliable that Charlotte’s 600-mile race is now more a test of drivers than their cars.

“All of the components in the car are pretty standard,” Chase Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “So you just want to make sure you have it all in good condition and dot all your I’s and cross your T’s.”

That wasn’t how it used to be. Kevin Harvick remembers that drivers used to be warned to take care of their equipment early so it would last until the end.

“The engine guys freak out because you have to go an extra 100 miles, but the parts and stuff on the car are a lot more durable than they used to be,” Harvick said. “Back in the day, it was ‘take care of the motor.’ ”

Drivers worry much less about their car’s engine today. The graph below shows how DNFs due to engine failure have decreased since NASCAR started running 600-mile races.

A bar chart shows that engine failures have gone from 50-70% to 10-30%, turning the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

In 1966, more than half the field lost an engine during the race. Only six cars have retired due to engine failure in the last five years.

While cars are more reliable, their drivers are still human. Crash-related DNFs (crashes, failure to beat the DVP clock and inability to meet maximum speed) show no clear trend over time.

A bar chart shows how the number of DNFs due to crashes doesn't show any overall trend with time

Typically, between five to 10% of the cars starting a race will fail to finish due to an accident rather than a mechanical failure. Last year’s race was an exception, setting a record for the largest fraction of the field taken out by crashes since the 600-miler began.

It’s only one data point as far as 600-mile races are concerned. It is, however, indicative of a trend observed since the Next Gen car debuted. The car is so sturdy that contact is no longer the deterrent it used to be.

Man versus machine

NASCAR’s only 600-mile outing has become an endurance race for humans. Drivers draw upon research in hydration, nutrition and fitness, hoping to create an advantage by preparation and conditioning.

“As a driver,” Daniel Suárez said, “your goal is to be as fresh at the end of the race as you are at the beginning. It isn’t about making it to the end of the race. It’s about being at your best at the end and taking advantage of other drivers who are tired.”

Harrison Burton, who ran his first 600-mile race last year, was surprised by how taxing that extra stage was.

“I figured it’s only 100 more miles than 500 and we do that fairly frequently and didn’t think it would be that different,” Burton said, “but for whatever reason when that fourth stage starts it’s definitely daunting.

Burton also noted that last year’s Coca-Cola 600 was the first time he got hungry during a race.

“It’s actually a really important race to have something to snack on in the car during the race,” Ross Chastain said. “I typically have some sort of protein bar that I can eat during a stage break just to try and keep my stamina up.”

The driver isn’t the only one whose mental acumen gets tested during the Coca-Cola 600. Crew chiefs and pit crews must work at peak form for a longer time.

“There’s more pit stops, there’s more restarts, there’s more strategy calls and there’s more laps,” Gustafson said. “There’s more everything.”

That means more opportunities to make mistakes or lose focus — or to take advantage of other drivers who do.

Alex Bowman confident as he returns to racing from back injury


CONCORD, N.C. — Alex Bowman watched the rain-filled skies over Charlotte Motor Speedway Saturday with more than a touch of disappointment.

As weather threatened to cancel Saturday night’s scheduled NASCAR Cup Series practice at the speedway, Bowman saw his chances to testing his car — and his body — dissolving in the raindrops. NASCAR ultimately cancelled practice and qualifying because of rain.

MORE: Wet weather cancels Charlotte Cup practice, qualifying

Bowman suffered a fractured vertebra in a sprint car accident last month and has missed three Cup races while he recovers. Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, the season’s longest race, is scheduled to mark his return to the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet.

“It would have been really nice to kickstart that with practice today,” Bowman said. “I haven’t raced or competitively driven a race car in a month. I’m trying to understand where my rusty areas are going to be and where I’m still good.”

Bowman ran 200 laps in a test season at North Wilkesboro Speedway this week, but, of course, that doesn’t compare with the faster speeds and tougher G-forces he’ll experience over 400 laps Sunday at CMS.

Bowman admitted that he is still experiencing pain from the back injury — his car flipped several times — and that he expects some pain during the race. But he said he is confident he’ll be OK and that the longer race distance won’t be an issue.

“I broke my back a month ago, and there’s definitely things that come along with that for a long time,” he said. “I have some discomfort here and there and there are things I do that don’t feel good. That’s just part of it. It’s stuff I’ll have to deal with. But, for the most part, I’m back to normal.

“I’m easing back into being in the gym. I’m trying to be smart with things. If I twist the wrong way, sometimes it hurts. In the race car at the end of a six-hour race, I’m probably not going to be the best.”

The sprint car crash interrupted what had been a fine seasonal start for Bowman. Although winless, he had three top fives and six top 10s in the first 10 races.

“I’m excited to be back,” Bowman said. “Hopefully, we can pick up where we left off and be strong right out of the gate.”

He said he hopes to return to short-track racing but not in the near future.

“Someday I want to get back in a sprint car or midget,” he said. “I felt like we were just getting rolling in a sprint car. That night we were pretty fast. Definitely a bummer there. That’s something I really want to conquer and be competitive at in the World of Outlaws or High Limits races. Somebody I’ll get back to that. It’s probably smart if I give my day job a little alone time for a bit.”




Charlotte NASCAR Cup Series starting lineup: Rain cancels qualifying


CONCORD, N.C. — William Byron and Kevin Harvick will start Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series 600-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the front row after wet weather cancelled Saturday night qualifying.

Rain pelted the CMS area much of the day Saturday, and NASCAR announced at 3:45 p.m. that Cup practice and qualifying, scheduled for Saturday night, had been cancelled.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to cockpit

The starting field was set by the NASCAR rulebook.

Following Byron and Harvick in the starting top 10 will be Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The elimination of the practice session was particularly problematic for Alex Bowman, scheduled to return to racing Sunday after missing three weeks with a back injury, and Jimmie Johnson, who will be starting only his third race this year. Johnson will start 37th — last in the field.

Charlotte Cup starting lineup