LEBANON, Tennessee — With a thud, Bubba Wallace smashed his helmet into the roof of his No. 23 car. Never mind that there was more than half the race left, enough time to recover in Sunday’s race at Nashville Superspeedway.
At this point, what mattered to Wallace was that his 23XI Racing pit crew had let him down again with a poor pit stop. As has happened numerous times throughout the season, a bad save cost Wallace dearly on Sunday night. And, in Wallace’s mind, the chance to win had slipped away. Instead of being sixth, he was now 31st and a lap behind the leaders.
So minutes later a tirade full of swear words on the radio making his anger clear, Wallace got out of his car during this red flag stoppage caused by heavy rain and lightning and drove away without saying a word to anyone.
When NASCAR raised the red flag a little over two hours later, Wallace got back in his car, pushed his anger aside and recovered to finish 12th, forcing him to overcome an unfortunate warning that cost him another lap toward the leaders.
Still, after the race, Wallace’s anger had subsided somewhat. He didn’t question crew chief Bootie Barker or his crew. He came off pit road saying little because, really, what was there to say? Everyone understood that the ball had been dropped and that nothing he could say was going to change the outcome.
“He’s defeated and frustrated,” Barker said. the athletic. “But you have to see what he did at the end. We changed the script to give him track position and he kept them off the old tires and he got a decent finish. So regardless of what he says, he still fought.”
Winning a Cup race is tough even on the best of days. But that difficulty is increased significantly when your pit crew routinely makes poor pit stops to the point that just being average would be considered successful. Miscues like the one that happened on Sunday just can’t happen.
While Wallace was parked on pit road during a stop during Stage 2, the cat fell off, meaning he should move away. it isThe standard operating procedure drivers follow when making a pit stop during a NASCAR race. Except this time, as Wallace left, Barker hurried over to the radio, emphatically giving his driver a directive.
“Stop! Stop! Stop!” Baker yelled.
One tire had not been tightened properly and was in danger of coming off. As instructed, Wallace stopped, only to be rear-ended by Tyler Reddick, who was directly behind Wallace as they exited pit road.
Another race, another instance of Wallace’s pit crew fumbling and fumbling their way through a pit stop. For a team fighting for a playoff spot and surely needing a win to qualify, this was a wasted opportunity. Just as it was during the races at Kansas Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway last month. No wonder Wallace got to the boiling point of it.
But why does this keep happening to the No. 23 team, seemingly more so than any other pit crew? That’s a question those involved struggled to understand on Sunday night.
“It’s a reasonable question,” Barker said. “I don’t have a great answer. We are working on it.”
One obstacle to 23XI solving this problem is that they have limited oversight on anything related to the pit crew that service Wallace’s car and that of his teammate Kurt Busch. That responsibility falls to Joe Gibbs Racing as part of its partnership with 23XI that involves developing, training and selecting pit crews for the Wallace and Busch teams each week.
Such arrangements are not uncommon. New teams, like the sophomore 23XI, find the cost of hiring their own pit crew prohibitive, preferring to lease one from a larger, more established organization like JGR. Hiring its own dedicated pit crew is something 23XI has considered, said team president Steve Lauletta. the athleticbut it is a process that cannot be done overnight.
“We get a lot of support from Joe Gibbs Racing, and this was one of the key areas where they really helped us out,” said Lauletta. “They have had problems with their cars and there have been problems in the pit lane with almost every team. It’s part of getting used to this (new Next Gen) car and the changes in it. And unfortunately we have been, with a team, the 23rd, the victim of more challenges than we all would have liked to have.
“Everyone tries very hard; effort is not the problem. It’s just a matter of continuing to work for 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’re going to keep trying to make sure we give the guys all the tools that we can to get better.”
The downside to hiring a pit crew is that when something goes wrong, the pit crew is often unable to correct the problem. This is the position the 23XI is currently in. The team is indebted to JGR, and at this point JGR has been unable to rectify a problem like the one that derailed Wallace’s hot streak at Nashville.
“As much trouble as the 23 (team) has had, there’s nothing worth saying anymore,” Busch said. “This is a JGR supply issue.”
Until there is some kind of correction, Wallace will most likely continue to experience nights like the one he had on Sunday, where he put his team in position to win only to be undermined by the effectiveness of his crew. And unless he wins the remaining nine races of the regular season, that will likely result in him missing the playoffs.
It’s a maddening moment for Wallace, who is under an intense spotlight. He can’t do much to put his team in position to win, and he’ll have to answer questions about why he didn’t reach the goal set by 23XI at the start of the season. Hence Wallace’s scathing reaction on the radio Sunday, just a day after he told reporters that he came to Nashville with a fresh mind, intent on limiting scathing radio comments.
“Sometimes it gets frustrating,” Wallace said on Saturday. “You get run over or you have a bad stop, or I go and hit the fence somewhere. It makes you go back. Let that go. You rely on continuing to be there. I look at a lot of races where the cars have been down and out and just go ahead and get good results.
“I’ve stopped holding the mental mindset of just being angry or carrying sarcasm. I feel good about this weekend and we will go out there and make the most of it.”
Wallace was right to be optimistic heading into the weekend. Nashville is a similar style of track to Kansas and Charlotte, and he had realistic hopes until Sunday of earning his second series victory. And when those hopes were dashed through no fault of his own, he reacted, even if his comments can be interpreted as harsh. But the pit crews up and down pit lane understand that this comes with the territory in the upper echelon of racing. Wallace’s crew is no exception.
And if they are angry at being whipped, they have only themselves to blame. Your driver should be expected to hold his tongue just for a while. Because it’s clear to all to see that the problem facing this team is one that is long overdue for correction.
(Photo: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today)