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

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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.

Sponsor adds more races in 2023 with Josh Berry

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Jarrett Companies will increase the number of races it will sponsor Josh Berry‘s No. 8 JR Motorsports ride in 2023, the Xfinity Series team announced Monday.

Jarrett Companies will sponsor Berry in six races after serving as the primary sponsor in three races in 2022. Those six races will be Phoenix (March 11), Richmond (April 1), Dover (April 29), Atlanta (July 8), Indianapolis (Aug. 12) and Texas (Sept. 23).

The deal gives Berry at least 26 races with sponsorship for next season. Bass Pro Shops will serve as the primary sponsor of Berry’s car in 11 races in 2023. Tire Pros is back with JRM and will sponsor Berry in nine races in the upcoming season.

Berry, who reached the Xfinity title race and finished fourth in the points, will have a new crew chief in 2023. Taylor Moyer will take over that role with Mike Bumgarner serving as JRM’s director of competition.

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.

 

Where are they now? Buddy Parrott enjoying down time

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Buddy Parrott played outsized roles in two of the most dramatic races in NASCAR history.

Now 83 years old and retired from the sport since 2001, Parrott looks back on those two days as highlights of a career that began in the early 1970s.

In the 1990 Daytona 500, champion driver Dale Earnhardt seemed on course to end his frustration in NASCAR’s biggest event. He held the lead roaring down the backstretch on the last lap. Suddenly, Earnhardt slowed with a blown tire.

The lead was inherited by Derrike Cope, who charged to the checkered flag to score one of racing’s biggest upsets.

Parrott was Cope’s crew chief.

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: Memorable quotes through the years

In 1984, Richard Petty edged Cale Yarborough to win the summer race at Daytona International Speedway. It was Petty’s 200th – and final – win.

Parrott was Petty’s crew chief.

Those victories were high marks in a long pit-road career that saw Parrott’s drivers win dozens of races. He worked with, among others, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Burton and Petty and for team owners Jack Roush and Roger Penske.

Parrott remains active at 83, although he admits to having moved to a slower gear.

“I haven’t been living on the edge,” Parrott told NBC Sports. “I’ve been taking it really easy. I told my sons when you get to be 80 you can do anything you want because basically you’ve already done it.”

MORE: NASCAR, ARCA 2023 schedules

His strongest current connection to NASCAR is as a voter in the annual Hall of Fame balloting.

After more than 20 years roaming pit roads as a crew chief, Parrott moved into a general manager role at Roush Racing in 1997. He retired four years later and didn’t look back.

“I finally told Jack one day, ‘I don’t have time to ride my motorcycle,’ ” Parrott said. “He looked at me and said, ‘What do you want to do about it?’ I said, ‘I’m ready to retire.’ He told me I could work whatever schedule I wanted, but I decided that was it. I didn’t have a going-away thing or whatever.”

Parrott spent much of the next 15 years traveling with his wife, Judy, who died in 2016, and playing with his grandchildren.

“I had a great time in retirement because Judy was ready and I was ready,” he said. “We had a lot of fun. We’d go to Florida for two and three months at a time. I’m so happy that I didn’t hang on and go to the shop every day and try to find something to do. I spent that time with Judy, and we had 16 years of good retirement.”

Parrott, a native of Gastonia, N.C., lives in Statesville, N.C. His sons, Todd and Brad, also were NASCAR crew chiefs.

MORE: Jody Ridley’s Dover win an upset for the ages

Parrott is perhaps best remembered as crew chief for Rusty Wallace, Team Penske and the No. 2 black cars sponsored by Miller Lite. From 1992-94, they won 19 races and were consistently competitive at the front.

“I still get a lot of cards sent to me to sign from those years,” Parrott said. “I can say that was some of the happiest times I had. Those years with Rusty – and then with Jack Roush – really stand out. And who in the hell could not have fun having a beer sponsor?”

 

 

NASCAR Awards to air at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Joey Logano didn’t need much time to answer the question.

Who would the two-time Cup champion want to introduce him at the NASCAR Awards?

Racing icon Mario Andretti, Logano immediately said. 

And there was Andretti on the stage at the Music City Center introducing Logano, the 2022 Cup champion. Watch that and the rest of the night’s festivities at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock. You can order Peacock here.

MORE: See the red carpet scene

MORE: Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

NBC Sports’ Marty Snider and Kim Coon co-hosted the show along with Fox Sports’ Kaitlyn Vincie. The Cup, Xfinity and Truck champions were honored. Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, whose father died hours after Gibbs won the Xfinity title last month, received a standing ovation and thanked the industry for its support.

The highlight of the night for Logano was having Andretti on stage to introduce him.

“He’s just been a great role model for me, not only as a racer, but as a person for so long,” Logano said afterward. “I had his picture on my wall. I looked at Mario Andretti before I went to sleep every night as a kid. I thought it was the coolest thing that he signed it to me.”

NASCAR Awards and Champion Celebration
Cup champion Joey Logano on stage with racing icon Mario Andretti during the NASCAR Awards in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Logano and Andretti have gotten to know each other through the years. Logano ran a throwback car that honored Andretti at Darlington Raceway in 2015 and 2021.

But none of that compared to being on stage with Andretti.

“That’s still like a pinch-me moment,” Logano said. “It’s Mario Andretti. He’s the man. The fact that he knows my name I think is really, really cool.”

Catch the NASCAR Awards at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community showed its support Thursday at the NASCAR Awards for the Gibbs family, grieving the death of Coy Gibbs on Nov. 6. 

During his interview on stage, car owner Joe Gibbs thanked the NASCAR industry for its support. (The NASCAR Awards show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock).

Coy Gibbs, son of Joe Gibbs and father of Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, died hours after seeing Ty Gibbs win the series title last month at Phoenix Raceway. Coy Gibbs, 49, was the vice chairman and chief operating officer at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief operating officer, introduced Ty Gibbs at the NASCAR Awards and noted that “everyone gathered tonight is all a part of the NASCAR family, and I know I speak for everyone that the entire NASCAR family is 100% percent behind this young man.”

Ty Gibbs received a standing ovation.

“Thank you,” he told the crowd, “that means a lot.”

Ty Gibbs spoke for less than a minute, thanking his team, sponsors, fans and the NASCAR community.

He closed his speech by saying “And thanks to my family. I love you. I hope everybody has a great offseason. Enjoy it. Thank you for all the support. Thank you for all the claps. I really appreciate it.”

Ty Gibbs spoke to the media earlier Thursday. Asked how he was doing, he said: “I’ve been doing good. Thank you for asking and definitely appreciate you guys. We’ve been doing good, doing a lot of stuff this week. … It’s been fun to experience this stuff.”

Asked about Joe Gibbs addressing the organization after Coy’s death, Ty Gibbs politely said: “For right now, I’m not going to touch on any of that subject at all. I’m just going to stick with all the racing questions and go from there.”

Cup champion Joey Logano said he spent time with 20-year-old Ty Gibbs on Wednesday at the champion’s dinner.

Logano said he told Ty Gibbs that “we’re here for you. You need something reach out.”