(Photo credit: Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports)
Bubba Wallace turned in a dramatic final lap of NASCAR Cup Series qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday to claim the pole position in Fort Worth, Texas for Sunday's AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 400.
Wallace's qualifying lap of 188.337 mph in the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota around the 1.5-mile Fort Worth high banks just edged the hometown favorite, Texas-native Chris Buescher's No. 17 Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing Ford by a slight .039-second. It's Wallace's first pole position of the season and only the second career pole for the 29-year old Mobile, Ala. native -- who is one of 12 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff-eligible drivers in this opening race of the second three-race round of the elimination-style format.
Wallace's fast lap stopped Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell's streak of pole positions at three. Bell -- who is also championship eligible -- swept the pole positions in the entire opening round of Playoffs and will start ninth on Sunday.
Buescher's teammate and team co-owner, Brad Keselowski -- also a Playoff contender -- was third fastest, followed by rookie Joe Gibbs Racing driver Ty Gibbs and Trackhouse Racing's Ross Chastain -- another Playoff driver.
Kaulig Racing's A.J. Allmendinger, Richard Childress Racing's Kyle Busch, Chastain's Trackhouse teammate Daniel Suarez, Bell and JGR's Denny Hamlin rounded out the top 10 in qualifying to set the 36-car field. Busch, Chastain, Bell and Hamlin are all Playoff contenders too.
In eight series starts at Texas, Wallace has only a single top-10 finish -- eighth place coming in his debut on the track in 2018. His only other top 20 (14th) came in 2020 spring race.
"I held it wide open," Wallace said with a smile, adding, "It's all about the people at 23XI, the 23-team and the 45-car as well. We keep pushing each other to be better and better and it's paying off. I'm proud of the effort, but it's nice for a moment, tomorrow is the real test.'
"Was I expecting it? I don't know. In qualifying I tend to try too hard and overthink things. I need to stop that and just go out and do. So that was a good surprise."
Hendrick Motorsports' William Byron and regular season champion, JGR's Martin Truex Jr. -- who are tied atop the standings coming into Texas -- qualified 18th and 16th, respectively. Kyle Larson, who is ranked third in the championship standings just missed advancing to the final qualifying session and will start 11th.
Other Playoff drivers, Wallace's teammate Tyler Reddick and Team Penske's Ryan Blaney will start 15th and 23rd, respectively.
Hamlin has advanced into the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs' Round of 12 for the 10th consecutive season -- the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and the most recent winner (at Bristol, Tenn. last weekend) as the series begins this next three-race series to narrow the title contenders to eight.
Although his three wins, 11 top fives (including four runner-up showings) and 14 top 10s through the openings 25 races are impressive, there's something different about the 19-year veteran in this year's Playoff run. His take-no-prisoners maneuvers on track may have occasionally earned "boos" from crowds this year, but Hamlin is absolutely feeling increasingly confident and optimistic about finally securing his first NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy.
Five times he's finished third or better in the title run; his best showing a runner-up to seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in 2010. He's finished fourth or better the last four seasons.
This, however, may just be "Hamlin's year," according to racing journalists, social media, his competitors. And Hamlin.
"I really do, but I also know sometimes things out of your control can happen," Hamlin said of his title expectations. "You've got to understand that. I say that, so you don't crash too far down when things don't go your way and you don't have the outcome you expect. But certainly based on the speed we show week-in and week-out, absolutely I believe we're one of the best four teams out there that should compete for a championship at Phoenix.
"But you have to play the game. There's a lot of work that has to be done between now and then and sometimes things are out of your control. But if they do stay in our control, I believe it's a year that we would be tough to beat."
Byron's NASCAR Cup Series-leading five victories in 2023 are a career high -- as are his series best 877 laps led this season in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. With seven races remaining on the schedule he is tied for the most top-five finishes (10) which is only two off his career season high mark set in 2021.
The 25-year old Charlotte resident has bettered himself statistically in each of his six seasons at NASCAR's elite level. And this year, he concedes, that would mean advancing to the Championship 4 for the first time. With his statistically achievements and the powerful, multi-championship Hendrick organization behind him, Byron is optimistic he could be vying for this NASCAR Cup Series championship come November.
Although he stopped short of predicting a trophy Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway, he remarked that his crew chief Rudy Fugle "was working on Christmas Eve" to prepare for the 2023 season. And it appears that kind of team effort is paying off.
"Trying to enjoy what we've accomplished doesn't work for me," Byron said. "I haven't thought about how good a season it's been or anything like that. Definitely not where my mind is. In November I might look back and reflect and say it was a good year, but there's still so much to accomplish and we're just starting to get into the meat of the season.
"I feel like each year has been that steady progression, that steady learning curve so I just want to keep that going and make that next step," he added. "I think there's a great opportunity and that our team is the best it's ever been, so we're definitely really capable."
Two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Busch grinned and acknowledged that this season, his former teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, Hamlin, has essentially replaced him as the series' resident "villain." The three-time DAYTONA 500 winner and last week's Bristol, Tenn. race winner is now receiving more boos during driver introductions than Busch, who for seasons essentially held the role of NASCAR's "bad boy."
"I'm sure I could put myself right back into that category pretty easily, it only takes something spectacular to do, right," said a smiling Busch, whose four Texas wins are most in the field and goes into Sunday afternoon's race ranked sixth in the championship in his first season driving the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
"It's different," he said. "I don't know if I've ever been in this spot because when I first came into this sport, my brother had made a lot of enemies on and off the race track so I was kind of thrown into that right off the bat. But it's been good to just be in a different light. It's been fun over at RCR and a lot of people have told me about the excitement around that and me being part of the 8 car.
"Just keep rolling with it. When you're in that spot -- like I was and Denny is -- you've got to do what Denny is doing. You've got to just play with it and just roll with it.
"It's fun to watch. I'm not the villain anymore."
NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying -- AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 400
Texas Motor Speedway
Fort Worth, Texas
Saturday, September 23, 2023
1. (23) Bubba Wallace (P) @, Toyota, 188.337 mph.
2. (17) Chris Buescher (P) @, Ford, 188.081 mph.
3. (6) Brad Keselowski (P) @, Ford, 187.891 mph.
4. (54) Ty Gibbs , Toyota, 187.761 mph.
5. (1) Ross Chastain (P) @, Chevrolet, 187.702 mph.
6. (16) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 187.350 mph.
7. (8) Kyle Busch (P) @, Chevrolet, 186.948 mph.
8. (99) Daniel Suarez, Chevrolet, 186.948 mph.
9. (20) Christopher Bell (P) @, Toyota, 186.896 mph.
10. (11) Denny Hamlin (P) @, Toyota, 0.000 mph.
11. (5) Kyle Larson (P) @, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
12. (43) Erik Jones, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
13. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
14. (48) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
15. (45) Tyler Reddick (P) @, Toyota, 0.000 mph.
16. (19) Martin Truex Jr. (P) @, Toyota, 0.000 mph.
17. (34) Michael McDowell, Ford, 0.000 mph.
18. (24) William Byron (P) @, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
19. (42) Carson Hocevar(i), Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
20. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 0.000 mph.
21. (10) Aric Almirola, Ford, 0.000 mph.
22. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 0.000 mph.
23. (12) Ryan Blaney (P) @, Ford, 0.000 mph.
24. (47) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
25. (41) Ryan Preece, Ford, 0.000 mph.
26. (77) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
27. (7) Corey LaJoie, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
28. (31) Justin Haley, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
29. (9) Chase Elliott (P), Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
30. (21) Harrison Burton, Ford, 0.000 mph.
31. (14) Chase Briscoe, Ford, 0.000 mph.
32. (2) Austin Cindric, Ford, 0.000 mph.
33. (38) Zane Smith(i), Ford, 0.000 mph.
34. (78) BJ McLeod(i), Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
35. (15) JJ Yeley(i), Ford, 0.000 mph.
36. (51) Todd Gilliland, Ford, 0.000 mph.
-- By Holly Cain, Special to Field Level Media