CONCORD, N.C. — After running 400 laps around Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway on Monday night, Bubba Wallace was tired.
And understandably so.
From mid-afternoon and into the evening hours, the 23XI Racing driver had logged nearly five hours in the cockpit of his No. 23 Toyota — battling door-to-door with NASCAR Cup Series contenders for 600 miles, no less.
But the 29-year-old kept a smile on his face, visibly enthused by his fourth consecutive top-five finish.
“We’re hitting our stride,” Wallace said. “The turning point has happened sooner than it has in previous years. Normally, it’s like playoffs.”
Though Wallace competed in the playoffs last year, he wasn’t in contention for the driver’s championship. Rather, he was piloting the No. 45 entry as a substitute for the injured Kurt Busch to chase the owner’s championship for 23XI Racing. But this year, the No. 23 driver has an inkling it will be a different story, especially when considering his recent streak.
Wallace finished fourth at Kansas Speedway a month ago, fifth at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, second during the All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway — which he’s counting toward his record — and fourth in the Coca-Cola 600.
“We continue to throw our name in the hat and we’re there,” Wallace said. “We’re becoming a factor.”
Earlier in the day, it seemed doubtful the No. 23 would crack the top five, despite the No. 23 starting seventh on the grid.
After struggling to gel with the car, Wallace was 29th by lap 80. He crept up to 15th by lap 126, but was still a bit out of touch.
At the end of stage two on lap 200, Wallace was 10th. While slow, his progression through the pack ultimately paved the way for his surge in the last 20-lap stretch.
On the final restart, the No. 23 was able to pass over 11 cars on his way to fifth.
When asked about his strategy in the closing laps, Wallace answered, “You just go where they’re not. It sounds easy, but it’s super hard because you’re trying to find the cleanest air possible and find the most momentum.”
The day was not without its drama, as Wallace and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola engaged in an altercation on pit road during the rain delay in the early afternoon. Almirola shoved Wallace after the two shared some heated words.
“Just passion. We were racing hard for a second stage and we finished fourth, so good day,” Wallace explained. “When you walk around with two faces, that’s what you get.”
While he’d certainly prefer to be standing in victory lane at night’s end, the 29-year-old was still satisfied with his top-five finish, calling it “redemption” from last year’s Coca-Cola 600.
Wallace was unable to finish the 600-mile marathon in 2022 as he was caught up in a multi-car wreck and finished 28th.
“That’s the thing I love about racing,” Wallace said. “You get to show up and it’s a new opportunity, fresh set of downs and you go out and compete, and that’s what it is.”