Like It or Not, Bubba Wallace Is Staying In NASCAR For a Long Time
Just the name Bubba Wallace elicits a deep well of—let’s just call it what it is—ignorance from a wide swath of NASCAR fans. At the same time, a burgeoning legion of younger fans love what he brings to the table.
Ultimately, though, NASCAR is about performance. And based on his performance over the past three seasons, Bubba Wallace is likely to stay in the Cup Series’ spotlight for a long time.
Bubba Wallace’s statistics put him in good company
As with all sports, performance is the primary indicator of success in NASCAR.
In that regard, Bubba Wallace has yet to achieve his full potential. But consistent improvements are the mark of a quality driver.
During his first full-time Cup Series season in 2018, Wallace earned a top-5 and three top-10 finishes with a middling Richard Petty Motorsports operation. He continued with that team in 2019, putting up just one top-10 but a 23.9 average finish, better than the 24.5 of his rookie season. In 2020, Bubba continued with RPM, posting five top-10s en route to a 21.1 average finish and a then-career-best 22nd-place points finish.
At first, those don’t sound like great numbers, but Wallace’s results were consistent with veteran Aric Almirola’s production in the same car with RPM from 2012-17. The team was competitive early in his tenure, and Almirola posted a 20.0 average finish in 2012. By 2016, that average fell to 23.3, and his injury-impacted 2017 season saw him earn an 18.8 average finish across 29 of 36 races.
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Considering Wallace’s inexperience in his rookie and sophomore NASCAR campaigns, a 24th-place average finish earned him the respect of his competitors.
Joining 23XI boosted Bubba Wallace’s career
Following the 2020 season, Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan combined to form 23XI Racing and tapped Bubba Wallace to be the team’s first driver.
With Toyota’s backing and support from powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing, Wallace enjoyed much better equipment than he had with RPM. The numbers immediately reflected this with his first win at Talladega in the 2021 YellaWood 500, a 19.7 average finish, and a 21st-place points finish.
Things got even better in 2022. Wallace won his first NASCAR race on a non-superspeedway track at Kansas and improved his average finish to 18.3. And while 2023 was a winless campaign for the driver, he qualified for the NASCAR Playoffs for the first time. Moreover, he earned a 15.9 average finish, his best in the NASCAR Cup Series, along with a career-best 10th-place points finish.
Bubba Wallace has support from Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin
It took an infusion of cash for Bubba Wallace to get on the NASCAR ladder. But since his arrival in 2010, few obstacles have stood in his way.
Not only is Wallace a marketable driver making headlines for his efforts in diversity and inclusion, but he also strikes a chord with the youthful audience NASCAR so desperately seeks. His openness regarding mental health and social-justice causes, as well as a matter-of-fact personality, gives him an authenticity that fans appreciate.
Moreover, Wallace’s on-track success has earned him support from team owners Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan. Hamlin, for his part, can be critical of his competitors and even feuded with Wallace early in his Cup career. Jordan needs no introduction.
Having these two influential forces in his corner is an excellent sign for his future career prospects.
Speaking on his Actions Detrimental podcast, Hamlin said of Wallace, “I’m really proud of the man he’s becoming, the competitor he’s becoming, the leader he’s becoming. Listen, we still let him down at times as a race team. We do. … He’s a great driver, and he’s continuing to get better.”
What makes a NASCAR driver successful?
NASCAR, and motorsports in general, are unique compared to other sports. It’s not unheard of for a poor kid from a small town to make it big in baseball, soccer, football, or basketball.
Legendary New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, for example, hails from a fishing village in Panama and used a glove made from an old milk carton until his father bought him a real one at age 12. Eventually, Rivera joined an amateur baseball league when, in 1990, his teammates put him in touch with a Yankees scout. The rest, as they say, is history.
But such stories in NASCAR are far less likely.
To get to the highest ranks of professional stock car racing, you need money. Big money. Even a season in the third-tier NASCAR Truck Series (Think AA baseball) requires a low-seven-figure investment. That can be provided by corporate sponsorship, but it’s more likely that a rich benefactor is powering these new drivers’ careers.
Bubba Wallace’s father could help him in the junior series, like go-karting and Bandoleros. But finances meant that by the time he was looking beyond regional Late Models, the NASCAR equivalent of a semi-pro league, there wasn’t enough money left.
Fortunately, Wallace got support from the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Program, sending him to the K&N Pro Series in 2010. From there, his marketability has kept the money flowing, while on-track success has powered his rise to NASCAR stardom.
Get used to seeing Bubba Wallace in NASCAR
With a younger fanbase, consistent competitive improvement, a marketable personality, and the support of his team owners, Bubba Wallace is now a fixture in the NASCAR Cup Series. Like it or not, NASCAR’s only full-time Black Cup Series driver will be in the sport, and likely in victory lane, for a long time to come.