For Bubba Wallace, a win Sunday afternoon at Kansas Speedway felt good for several reasons.
While it was his second career win in the NASCAR Cup Series, it was his first not called short by rain and not on a superspeedway. It came after Wallace led 58 laps, and he and his 23XI Racing team, aside from one potential loose wheel, put together a solid weekend from start to finish.
“To win it in this fashion, yeah, it’s definitely really cool,” Wallace said. “We’re talked about when we go to the [superspeedways] and not so much the rest of the tracks, so I want to start changing that, and we’ve been able to show up these last two months or so, all different kinds of racetracks and be talked about. And that’s cool. It’s a step in the right direction. We just can’t get complacent; we’ve got to keep going, got to keep pushing for more. This is great, but we have to continue to go out and battle.”
Wallace’s first win in the fall race at Talladega Superspeedway was also the first win for 23XI Racing. Since then, Wallace has come close to winning again, but either fell short or had the opportunity taken away either by mistakes or misfortune.
There have been plenty of races where Wallace and his Toyota teammates had the speed but nothing to show for it. The race at Kansas earlier this year is a good example, as Wallace was fast, perhaps the fastest car in the field according to TRD president David Wilson. But repeated mistakes left him with a 10th-place finish instead of a potential win.
Twice this year, Wallace has finished second. Michigan hurt the most since he won the pole and led 22 laps but couldn’t get one more spot on the final restart.
Sunday, when a reporter mentioned in the winner’s news conference that Wallace’s win felt normal for whatever reason, Wallace cracked, “It’s not raining.”
But the No. 23’s crew chief Bootie Barker felt it did feel normal and that it’s a good thing.
“I’m really happy for Bubba and our team and I’ll say this: It’s a pleasure working with Bubba,” said Barker. “He’s gotten better and better. I thank Denny [Hamlin] a lot for going out on a limb and taking his money and putting it on the line to start the team.
“All of that being said, we know how good we are. We knew. And I know how good Bubba was and how good he’s been all year. I feel very happy for him and the fact that we took it to them. What are you going to say? What can you throw rocks at us about this time? I’m just really happy for our whole organization, especially Bubba, for how we did it.”
Barker was absolutely speaking to the critics with the last part of his answer. Wallace was more straightforward about it both on his radio after the checkered flag (“What are [they] going to say now?” he yelled) and then by putting his finger to his lips as if he was telling them to be quiet after his burnout.
Wallace is a polarizing figure whether he wants to be or not. It starts with his skin color and continues with his outspoken nature about social justice issues, who he drives for, and the emotion he wears on his sleeve. Not all drivers are for all fans, but it can’t be denied that he faces some unnecessary criticism because of who he is.
Winning for the second time in the Cup Series was as much for Wallace and his team showing they could do it as it was trying to shut everyone else up.
“I think it’s incredible,” he said of being a two-time winner. “Winning at this level is the hardest thing in life for us race car drivers. To be able to say we’re winners today at Kansas, through the year that we’ve had and what we’ve been able to do the last couple of months, is incredible. I’m proud of Bootie. Thankful for Denny [Hamlin] for just continuing to believe in me and make the most of the opportunity. To come out winners, I knew it was only a matter of time. I had a lot of people telling me that, so it’s finally cool to see it come to fruition.
“Two time is better than one time.”