Martinsville race may prove to be a watershed moment for Bubba Wallace

Three Hendrick Motorsports drivers—William Byron, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott—finished 1-2-3 in Sunday’s Cook Out 400 at Martinsville Speedway.

That aspect of the eighth NASCAR Cup Series race of the season has been well documented. Hendrick is the first organization to sweep the podium positions at the 0.526-mile short track.

All but lost in the Hendrick hoopla, however, was the performance of a driver who now seems poised for lasting stardom—Bubba Wallace.

Examination of the statistics from Sunday’s race reveals emphatically that, as strong as the Hendrick trio was at the front of the field, those drivers had company.

Wallace was closing fast on Larson at the end of the first stage and finished second to the pole winner. At the end of the second stage, he was runner-up behind his 23XI Racing team owner, Denny Hamlin, by less than a half-second.

In the two-lap overtime shootout that decided the race, Wallace was fourth by the nose of a car behind Elliott, roughly three feet away from spoiling Hendrick’s storybook sweep.

Wallace scored 18 stage points at Martinsville, matching Larson for the highest total. His 51 points for the race were second-most behind Larson’s 53.

NASCAR’s loop data statistics for the event are even more telling. With a driver rating of 115.8, Wallace was fourth behind Larson, Elliott and Byron, the race winner. Wallace’s average running position was 3.79, third behind Elliott (3.15) and Larson (3.50), with Byron’s statistics skewed by an 18th-place starting position.

Wallace was third fastest late in a run at 89.003 mph, again behind Elliott (89.166 mph) and Larson (89.093 mph). He spent 412 of 415 laps in the top 15, behind only Hamlin (415) and Elliott (413).

Cumulatively, the statistics tell a compelling story, namely that in Sunday’s race at Martinsville, Wallace was a formidable challenger to the three powerhouse drivers who swept the top three positions.

The statistics, however, don’t tell the whole story. There was a different character to the way Wallace raced at Martinsville. He raced, not as an interloper with an atypical gift of speed, but as if he belonged at the front of the field.

But for an adjustment that loosened the handling condition of his No. 23 Toyota too much for the final run, Wallace might well have contended for the victory.

“We were almost great today,” Wallace said of SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “In races past, we’ve just been good, been decent, nothing to hang our heads about.

“But even today, we took an uptick in performance, so it’s something to build on for the fall and a hell of a points day for us, so it’s good.”

It was more than that. Reflecting on his fourth-place run, Wallace acknowledged that he has embraced what Byron seems to have known instinctively, that the intensity of a driver’s work ethic can have as much of an effect on performance as raw talent.

“We do a lot of stuff during the week, and I’m finally starting to understand that it all pays off,” Wallace said. “You’ve got to give the effort, because these guys (his 23XI team) are busting their ass. It is days like this that you appreciate it.

“We needed that. My Toyota was strong today. We lost a little bit on that last stop. We got too free, but all in all, I was content in finishing sixth (where he was running before the overtime), and that’s why you never give up. Top-five—good day, and we will go on to Texas.”

Indeed. Wallace will go to Fort Worth with a sense of accomplishment, well-earned confidence, a feeling of belonging at the front of the field and more than a hint of budding stardom.