The recent spike up the sportsbook charts is no fluke. Bubba Wallace’s rise to 11-1 odds for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway is just one acknowledgment of how his skill set at the sport’s largest ovals has developed. His team and fellow competitors recognize it, too.
“That’s a good question because it’s kind of happened recently,” says Joey Logano, a three-time Talladega winner. “I’d say he’s a fairly patient speedway racer, where he makes moves every now and again, but most of the time, he’s pretty patient on the kind of letting the race come to him. He used to be a lot more aggressive, make moves, and a lot of times they didn’t work. They weren’t fully calculated and made him honestly fairly easy to beat.
“Now, it’s not quite like that anymore where he upped his game and kind of found his own niche of speedway racing that works for him, and he does a good job of surviving them. And that’s the other piece I see. He does a good job of getting to the end, which plays to that patient piece. ”
Wallace found his way to an abbreviated end of the most recent Talladega event, securing his first NASCAR Cup Series win. He enters Sunday’s GEICO 500 (3 pm ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM) with a recent bounty of strong showings on his side at Talladega, Daytona International Speedway and the new hybrid-superspeedway at Atlanta Motor Speedway – all of which use the same rules configuration and where the aerodynamic draft is king.
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Wallace had shown glimmers of superspeedway talent earlier in his career, most notably as an emotional runner-up in his first Daytona 500 while racing for team owner Richard Petty. Since joining 23XI Racing at the start of last season, he’s led laps in each of the races at Daytona and Talladega, and his most recent finishes at those two tracks are second (2021 Daytona-2), first (2021 Talladega-2) and second (2022 Daytona-1).
“We’ve had fast cars but didn’t really get the finishes, but then these last three speedway races, man, things have just clicked,” Wallace told NASCAR.com. “So, a little bit of luck involved in all that, too, but I’ve just got to go out and continue to do what we do.”
Luck, perhaps, but making the right maneuvers in the pack also takes a deft touch.
The stout no. 23 Toyota that the Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan-owned team fields have helped Wallace become a more regular contender, but his growth as a driver at those high-speed tracks has made him a key player in the draft.
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“To say we’re watching Bubba mature in front of us, you know, is an understatement,” says Mike Wheeler, 23XI Racing’s competition director. “I think he came in with a lot of insight on how to speedway race. I like to think we gave him a better car to do it in. I really can’t say that, because he definitely excelled pretty early on. I think we’ve had good Toyota cars for years and good packages, but he definitely took it in, and early on, you realized he was making a lot of good moves, but still making typical driver mistakes that get you shuffled out. But at the same point, you realized he had confidence that he could get back up there. He would take himself out if there was, you know, some people that were scary around him. I know Denny has been that way, and a lot of guys will actually bail out of the pack if they see people around them they’re not comfortable with. And that just tells you that the driver has confidence that he’ll know he’ll get back to the front toward the end of the race.
“I’ve seen that, I’ve seen Bubba work on not just worrying about the car in front of him or the car behind him, but cars multiple rows behind or in front of him. I think it takes a special set of skills that is hard to quantify. But the moment you know you’re working with two guys behind you or three guys behind you to make a run. It shows the maturity and confidence you have in your ability and your equipment, but that you can have to look that far beyond your windshield and the rearview mirror to make stuff happen. ”