Kurt Busch’s performance to start the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season has led to some questions about Bubba Wallace. But are they justified?
The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season was always going to be a unique one for 23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace.
Wallace is in his fifth season as a full-time driver and his second season as the driver of the #23 Toyota for the Joe Gibbs Racing-affiliated team started last year by Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan.
But in addition to not having a teammate last year, he also did not have a teammate from 2018 to 2020 when he drove the #43 Chevrolet for Richard Petty Motorsports. So the 2022 season is his first with a teammate.
From day one, Hamlin was clear that he wanted to 23XI Racing to expand and become a two-car organization. They were able to do just that for year number two, adding the #45 Toyota, and they confirmed 2004 series champion Kurt Busch as the driver of that car.
For the first time in his career, Wallace has somebody to whom he can be directly compared in equal equipment.
This presented him with an opportunity, an opportunity to silence the doubters once and for all against a 33-time race winner and former champion of the sport who is riding streaks of eight consecutive winning seasons and nine consecutive playoff berths.
But it also served as a risk. What if he couldn’t perform at Busch’s level? The criticism would be worse than it’s ever been for the driver who has become arguably the most recognizable driver in the sport over the last two years.
And through five races, the criticism is beginning to heat up.
Five races is a very small sample size. But through five events at five very different tracks, Busch leads all full-time drivers with an average finish of 9.6.
He sits in fifth place in the point standings as the highest Toyota driver — yes, even higher than all four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers, including his brother Kyle. He has just one finish lower than 13th, and his three top 10 finishes are as many as Wallace had in his entire first season with 23XI Racing.
Meanwhile, Wallace currently sits in 18th place in the standings, out of a playoff spot, with just one finish higher than 13th. His average finish of 16.2 ranks 13th among all drivers and fourth among the six Toyota drivers.
But interestingly enough, as far as winning races is concerned, Wallace has positioned himself to do just that, while Busch has simply strung together solid results without truly being a contender yet. Wallace has led 15 lapses while Busch has led just eight.
Wallace has established himself as one of the best superspeedway drivers in the sport. In addition to running in second place on the final lap of last Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway before a hard crash left him in 13th, he finished in second in the season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway by just 0.036 seconds behind race winner Austin Cindric.
His two most recent trips — and three overall trips — to Daytona International Speedway have produced second place finishes, and his two most recent trips to Talladega Superspeedway have produced two stage wins and his first career race win.
Unfortunately for Wallace, him positioning himself for wins in 2022 hasn’t translated to a trip to a victory lane, and that, of course, is another talking point in itself.
Until he wins a race by taking the checkered flag — not by being told he’s the winner several minutes after a rain stoppage — there will be criticism directed at him for “not winning a real race”.
And until he can consistently score good results at tracks other than superspeedways — he has just one top 10 finish at such tracks since August 2020 — the comparisons to Busch will only make criticism of the driver of the #23 Toyota even more intense.