Saturday, August 20, 2022

Bubba Wallace’s pit crew faces scrutiny after stretch of poor performances

Bubba Wallace’s pit crew has been the target of great criticism and scrutiny over the past week, as a pattern of poor performances and mistakes on pit road once again reared its head at Nashville Superspeedway and led to the 23XI Racing driver openly expressing his frustration with his crew mid-race.

After posting the fastest speed in practice, Wallace had recovered from a miscue in qualifying and had driven his way up to sixth near the halfway point of Sunday’s race. But during a pit stop under caution, Wallace’s crew left a wheel loose on his car, prompting crew chief Bootie Barker to tell Wallace to stop and drive the car slowly back to the pits to get the wheel tightened on again.

Wallace lost a lap as a result of the debacle, which was a continuation of pit road issues that have plagued the No. 23 team all season. The team left a wheel loose that ended up falling off at Circuit of the Americas, and also left wheels loose at Richmond and Talladega. A pit road penalty cost Wallace a chance at a potential victory at Kansas, and a misunderstanding of NASCAR’s damaged vehicle policy led to Wallace failing to finish the Coca-Cola 600 — a race which Wallace led — despite not suffering major damage in a multi-car crash.

Though Wallace would get his lap back after a rain delay, he was openly angry and disgusted with his crew on his team radio.

“Leave me the f–k alone, dude,” Wallace told Barker. “Don’t talk to me the whole f–king race.”

Wallace would eventually drive back into the top 10 later in the race before losing his track position when a caution came out during a cycle of green flag pit stops. The night ended up being salvaged when Barker called for Wallace to stay out on old tires under the final caution to gain track position, and Wallace would end up finishing 12th.

A major part of the problem has been that 23XI Racing does not have direct oversight over its pit crew. The team leases a crew from Joe Gibbs Racing, which has had pit crew problems of its own this season.

“We just have been unfortunately, with one team, the 23, a victim of more challenges than we all would have liked to have,” 23XI team president Steve Lauletta told Jordan Bianchi of The Athletic. “Everybody is trying hard; effort is not the problem. It’s just a matter of continuing to work on continuing to get reps, and we talk about it all the time, and we work on it as hard as we can.

“It’s not where any of us want it to be. And so, we’ll just keep trying to make sure that we’re giving the guys every tool that we can so they get better.”

The spotlight on Wallace’s pit crew in particular has been an extension of the spotlight on Wallace, who is under a unique level of pressure as the Cup Series’ only Black driver and one of the sport’s stars. Despite his standing as a star, Wallace has just two top 10 finishes this season and five overall since joining 23XI in 2021 — the same amount of top 10s he scored in all of 2020 while driving for Richard Petty Motorsports — although his lone Cup win came with 23XI last season.

Speaking to reporters at Nashville, Wallace had admitted he was trying to change certain aspects of his mental approach, but admitted he had dwelt on missed opportunities in 2022 during the off-week prior to Nashville.

In the interim, veteran teammate Kurt Busch — who was himself a notorious radio rageaholic in his younger days — told reporters on Tuesday that he is trying to help Wallace handle his frustrations in a more mature and professional manner.

“I’m like, ‘Hey, man, I’ve been here. I’m right there with you. I’m a racer. I’m passionate. We just have to get to that next level of professionalism,'” Busch said in a report by NBC Sports. “I’ve made those mistakes, and he’s making those mistakes and yet, it’s still a matter of just relying on all elements and all people within the team.

“… Everybody’s circling around on what the real core issue is. And that’s the consistency on the pit stops with the 23 car. So Bubba is right, but we just got to get that problem fixed. And we got to handle it the right way.”

What has gotten lost in the lack of results for Wallace is that he has run at the front at times throughout the 2022 season. Wallace came within half a car length of winning the Daytona 500, contended for another win at Atlanta before being shuffled out on the final lap, and won a stage at Talladega and has compiled stage points at intervals throughout the season.

Still, Wallace will likely have to win a race in order to make the NASCAR playoffs, as he currently sits 139 points below the cutoff line at 24th in the standings.

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