LOS ANGELES — As the sun rises on a new NASCAR Cup Series season, Bubba Wallace‘s confidence is already beaming.
That comes with good reason: The driver of the No. 23 Toyota for 23XI Racing enters 2023 off his strongest season yet, scoring a win during the playoffs at Kansas Speedway to go along with career-high marks in top fives (five) and top 10s (10). He also garnered some playoff experience competing for an owner‘s championship after then-teammate Kurt Busch was sidelined due to injury.
Wallace‘s continued rise in performance has culminated in sincere optimism, eager to prove last year wasn‘t a fluke and find ways to improve in his third year at 23XI.
“I would say this is the most excited I am for a season to start just because the momentum we were on last year,” Wallace said Saturday ahead of the Busch Light Clash. “All the changes that we’ve made in the offseason, it‘s shaping up to be hopefully our best year yet. We’ve been able to win the last two seasons but at the wrong time. We need to win before the playoffs, get in the playoffs and make a good playoff run which I think our team is totally capable of doing now.
“We have the right people in place. Our mentality is there, our work efforts are there. So I just have to do my job and go out and start this year off right.”
The first on-track action of 2023 validated much of that hope. Wallace led 40 laps in Sunday‘s exhibition opener at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, second-most behind Ryan Preece‘s 43 laps led, and had a strong chance of leaving with a podium finish. But contact from Austin Dillon with seven laps to go sent Wallace backward into the Turn 2 SAFER barrier, relegating the No. 23 to a 22nd-place result.
Despite the disappointing ending, Wallace focused on the positives that stemmed from an impressive outing.
“We were really good at the first half of the race obviously,” Wallace said. “And then all the cautions, I couldn‘t tell if I was letting [the car] get too cold or letting it get too hot. And then once I fell back to fourth, I realized I was letting everything get too cold, so I was kicking myself for that.
“But quickly adjusted and got back going, and the 3 (Dillon) never tried to make the corner. He just always run into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot. And then we get dumped. It sucks, but y‘all are looking for something I ain‘t gonna give you.”
All love. Had a blast last night https://t.co/xdL8SZRvWv
— Bubba Wallace (@BubbaWallace) February 6, 2023
Bootie Barker, crew chief of Wallace’s No. 23 team, sees the work both Wallace and the collective group have done to prepare for the season ahead. The key is finding a way to “be there all the time,” Barker said, and to keep building off last year’s foundation.
“I think it’s a continuation from the end of the year, you know?” Barker told NASCAR.com. “We felt we should be good. We’ve got good people and did good work, so that’s what I expect.”
Next is the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 19 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Wallace finished runner-up in the Great American Race by 0.036 seconds to Austin Cindric a season ago and has two second-place showings in the sport’s grand opener.