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

4 Comments

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.