Dr. Diandra: Evaluating the likelihood of a Bubba Wallace repeat at Kansas
Bubba Wallace enters this weekend hoping to repeat at Kansas Speedway. His win last fall was 23XI Racing’s second at the track: Wallace’s then-teammate Kurt Busch won the spring race.
The 23XI Racing teams were so dominant at Kansas last year that new teammate Tyler Reddick joked at Dover that he and Wallace would have to get together to decide which one of them wins which race this year.
Given that Wallace has only two top-10 finishes this year and four DNFs, should owners Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin start preparing to celebrate a Wallace repeat at Kansas Speedway?
Wallace’s 2023 stats
But that’s a subjective observation. Objectively, Wallace’s 2023 stats are slightly better than his 2022 numbers.
Wallace has just one top-five and two top-10 finishes, but that’s better than this time last year. Five top 15s are much improved over the two from last year.
What’s most impressive, however, is that Wallace has achieved these numbers despite four DNFs. One was mechanical (an engine failure at Fontana). Two of the other three were especially painful because they happened at Daytona and Talladega.
Wallace is a strong superspeedway driver. Last year, his average finish at the first three superspeedways was 10.7, with a best finish of second and a worst of 17th. This year, his average superspeedway finish is 25.0.
Despite the bad runs at some of his best tracks, Wallace still improved his overall average finishing position after 11 races by 0.7 positions relative to 2022 and his average running position by 0.2 positions.
Wallace at Kansas
Wallace earned his best finish of 2023 (fourth) at the sole intermediate track the Cup Series has visited this year (Las Vegas). Not only did he finish well, Wallace scored points in both stages.
Although Kansas hosted Wallace’s second career win, his relationship with the track has warmed only recently. In 10 career starts, Wallace has a 21.9 average finish with only three top-15 finishes. He’s led 60 laps, with 58 of those coming during last fall’s win.
The good news is that those three top-15 finishes were the last three races Wallace ran at Kansas Speedway. His average finishing position in the three most recent races is 8.3 -- a win last fall, a 10th-place finish last spring and a 14th-place finish in fall 2021.
Wallace is mired in 21st place in the season standings, 154 points behind leader Ross Chastain. With that much of a point deficit and only 15 races remaining in the regular season, Wallace needs a win.
Wallace’s two career wins both happened late in the year, though. His Talladega 2021 victory was the 31st race of the year. Last year’s Kansas win was the 28th race of the season. The big question is whether he’s better primed for another fall win rather than a spring victory.
Keys for a Wallace repeat at Kansas Speedway
Avoid contact. Although Wallace exited COTA on Lap 10 of 75, he was headed for good finishes — maybe even a win — until the last lap of the other two races. Kansas leverages a lot of the same tactics as a superspeedway, but without pack racing. That could be an advantage.
Don’t let mistakes or misfortunes rattle the team. Kansas is more forgiving of small mistakes than superspeedways. It’s possible to recover from a spin or minor contact, especially early in the race. Someone on Wallace’s team needs to take the head cheerleader role to ensure that one mistake doesn’t affect the rest of the race.
Pit road performance is key. The No. 23 team has mostly avoided pit road penalties this year. Wallace was caught speeding once. The pit crew incurred only one penalty when a crew member fell over the wall at Richmond.
But pit crew precision has been an issue for 23XI Racing from the start. This year, 23XI hires and trains its own pit crews instead of subcontracting from Joe Gibbs Racing.
The in-house pit crew has performed better across the first 11 races. By my calculations, the 2023 crew loses about 0.8 fewer positions per pit stop than the 2022 crew did.
The bad news is that they’re still losing track position on pit road.
For example, a 37-second pit stop at Phoenix this year dropped Wallace from 11th to 21st. That’s a big deficit for a driver to overcome.
At Dover, Wallace lost position on five of six stops for a net loss of 36 spots. The team’s best pit stop time (measured from when the car enters the pit box to when it leaves) was 10.11 seconds. That ranked the team 12th in average time among all teams executing four or more four-tire pitstops.
The average four-tire pit stop time for the No. 23 was 11.01 seconds, which ranked 20th. Brad Keselowski’s team had the best average pit stop time at 10.09 seconds. Their No. 6 team’s average was two-hundredths of a second faster than the No. 23 team’s best stop.
Finally, hope for fewer green-flag pit stops. The team loses more positions on average during pit stops under green than they do under yellow.