By Justin Schuoler, Staff Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Bubba Wallace comes into the new NASCAR Cup Series season fresh off a year where he posted several career highlights.
His victory at Kansas Speedway last fall gave his team their first season sweep at one track after teammate Kurt Busch won at the 1.5-mile oval earlier in the spring. The win made his crew chief, Bootie Barker, a multi-race winner at the NASCAR Cup Series level, and it was also Wallace’s first full-length victory. His only other win at NASCAR’s top level came in a rain-shortened race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
Wallace was also entrusted to drive for Busch in the No. 45 car after he was sidelined due to concussion-like symptoms from a qualifying crash at Pocono Raceway. 23XI Racing had Busch’s entry locked into the owner playoffs, and Wallace nearly drove his way into the Round of 8 before falling just a handful of points short of advancing.
However, his positive spotlight quickly faded when the schedule headed west for the penultimate time.
At Las Vegas (Nev.) Motor Speedway, he and 2021 Cup Series champion Kyle Larson battled through turns three and four. A wiggle by Larson sent his car up the track where Wallace was racing. Wallace swung wider to avoid colliding with Larson but it came at the cost of colliding with the outside wall.
In frustration, Wallace retaliated by hooking the right rear of Larson, sending him into a similar dangerous spin to the one that sidelined Larson’s teammate Alex Bowman just a few races prior.
Larson’s spin was redirected when his car sideswiped Christopher Bell before crashing into the wall and sliding through the grass.
A mix of emotions burst from the grandstands as both drivers climbed out of their cars. Wallace strutted over to Larson, shoving Larson in a show of displeasure. Fans erupted at the brawl, which was quickly broken up by NASCAR officials.
That week, NASCAR announced the penalty for Wallace’s actions: a one-race suspension.
In his apology, Wallace not only addressed Larson, but also Bell, who was in the hunt for the driver’s title.
“I want to apologize for my actions on Sunday following the on-track incident with Kyle Larson and the No. 5 car,” Wallace wrote at the time. “My behavior does not align with the core values that are shared by 23XI Racing and our partners, who have played a crucial role in my incredible journey to the top of this great sport. I want to apologize to NASCAR and the fans, along with Christopher Bell, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Toyota for putting them in a situation in the playoffs that they do not deserve.
“I compete with immense passion, and with passion at times comes frustration. Upon reflecting, I should have represented our partners and core team values better than I did by letting my frustrations follow me outside of the car. You live and learn, and I intend to learn from this.”
NASCAR chief operating officer Steve O’Donnell understood the competitive nature that racers possess, but felt a line was crossed with the action Wallace took.
“We believed that it was a heat of the moment action that took place,” O’Donnell said. “I think you saw through Bubba’s statement that if he had to do that all over again, I think maybe it would be a different circumstance. We just felt it crossed the line and we really had to react, because it’s an action that we don’t want to see going forward.”
However, that was last year, and when Wallace returned for the remainder of 2022, his team, his competitors and fans alike saw a new driver emerge.
At the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum during the Busch Light Clash two weeks ago, when he was wrecked in the closing laps while running close to the lead, some would argue that Wallace had even more of a right to fight.
“We got dumped,” he declared. “It sucks, but it is what it is.”
It wasn’t his usual response, but it was heartwarming to hear and see. When he could have easily retaliated or plotted payback, Wallace instead focused on the next race and his job at hand.
So what was it that Wallace learned during the off-season that has helped both his race craft and his approach?
On Dec. 31, Wallace tied the knot with his new wife, Amanda Carter. Their wedding came a year and a half after their engagement back in June of 2021, and the pair had dated since 2016.
Asked what he’s learned most about his marriage in his first month, Wallace laughed at his own two-word answer.
In reality, it is a common feature among newlyweds. Learning to bite your tongue or swallow your pride and choose to love the other person more than oneself is a lifelong lesson that a marriage teaches frequently.
“We’ve been crushing life,” Wallace continued. “It’s been fun. It’s funny having conversations and to be like, my wife this, my wife that. It’s been cool.”
Wallace has taken a step back, admittedly, which has opened his eyes to new approaches both in his racing career and his personal life. To win multiple races, he gauged mistakes from past experiences and knows what adjustments to make.
“Think before you do. Appreciate the moment that you are in,” said the 29-year old. “Amanda, my wife, asked me – this was right after Vegas – ‘I think next year, we are going to be used to running up front and becoming one of the names people talk about every race, so when you have a bad race, you can’t lose your temper.’ Because it’s just dang, we finished second, versus being so frustrated at that. Like, accept that, enjoy that.
“I think just taking a step back, taking a deep breath, realizing that today is either your day or not your day and that’s okay because you have x-number of races to go.”
As said by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, it is impossible to progress without change, and those who do not change their minds cannot change anything. Wallace continues to mold into his true self, and his character proceeds to shine in tough moments like The Clash.
Regardless of the pressure, the Alabama native has kept his confidence high, knowing his team is well-prepared and well-capable of success in 2023.
“Let’s get through Daytona and make a statement,” Wallace noted. “I think that we have to win at the right time. We saw our weaknesses and we made changes to improve those weaknesses and I’m excited about the changes that we made throughout the offseason. A lot of people have expectations; so do we. Especially me.”
With two new teammates in Tyler Reddick and Travis Pastrana joining his stable for this year’s Great American Race, Wallace could only grin in anticipation of what could be a breakout season.
“This is the most excited I’ve been to start a season off.“