Bubba Wallace tops field to win pole for NASCAR Cup race at MIS
Brooklyn — Bubba Wallace topped the field for his first career NASCAR Monster Energy Cup pole Saturday afternoon at Michigan International Speedway for the FireKeepers Casino 400, putting together a lap of 190.703 mph around the two-mile superspeedway’s D-shaped oval.
Wallace, 28, is in his second year driving the No. 23 Toyota Camry for the 23XI Racing team owned by NBA legend Michael Jordan and Joe Gibbs Racing star driver Denny Hamlin.
Wallace feels this is his time to get his first victory of the season, feeling he has momentum from a pair of top-five finishes in the previous three races, a third at New Hampshire and a fifth on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course last weekend.
Wallace currently sits 20th in the points, needing a win to make the 16-driver playoffs for the right to fight for the series championship during the final 10 races of the season.
Wallace would like nothing more than to be the Toyota driver to end Ford’s run of seven straight wins at MIS.
Sunday’s race at MIS is one of the final four races prior to the playoffs. Drivers automatically punch their ticket into the playoffs by winning a race. Fourteen drivers have won one or more races, including Wallace’s teammate Kurt Busch who is currently sidelined with a concussion.
Wallace was the first driver with a qualifying lap of more than 190 mph in the new Next Gen car.
“Fastest man, sweet,” Wallace said during the post-qualifying press conference. “It’s awesome. I’m proud of my team, continuing to show up and battle and give it all we got. That’s obviously the goal every time you start a season. No matter what is thrown at you throughout the season you have to keep showing up and putting on that face and executing.
“Man, we’ve been one of the best teams the last couple of weeks. I came over the radio after the first (qualifying) run and said it’s fun to have fun and it’s pretty fun right now.”
Wallace was one of several drivers who took part in a GoodYear tire test at MIS this past spring. The tire that was used in the test was tossed aside for a different one due to issues.
“We were a little slower, so it did impact the speed and the feel of it was a little different,” Wallace said of the tire change. “Coming into this deal with MJ, Curtis, Denny, they wanted to win, win races, not poles, but poles are good, but to do that you have to hire the best people and the smartest people and once we heard about the tire change, we quickly went to work on how much we need to change the car to tune for that and Bootie (crew chief Barker) and our team hit it right on the head.
“The car feels great. It feels good in race trim. Obviously qualifying went very well for us. Just shows the testament to the people that we have back in the shop that put these cars together and allow me to go out and do what I can do.”
So, what does Wallace expect in the race?
“It’s going to be tough to pass so good thing we’re starting in front,” said Wallace, whose lone win came in the fall race at Talladega last year. “Just the aero sensitivity of these cars are so massive, so you have to time your passes out right, put yourself in the right spot. With the resin, it creates a little bit wider racing surface for us, but it’s still going to be a challenge. If we can keep the track position all day and win it, I’d be good with that.
“I believe with the speed that we have there is no reason that we can’t go out and win. I think we’re going to be battling our Toyota teammates just based off the test.”
Christopher Bell of Joe Gibbs Racing was the second fastest driver in his No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, followed by his JGR teammate Kyle Busch with Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Austin Cindric fourth and fifth in Ford Mustangs. Tyler Reddick of Richard Childress Racing, who has won two of the last five races, will start sixth in his Chevrolet Camaro. Byron, Michigan native Erik Jones will start 10th in his Chevrolet for Richard Petty Motorsports.
Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski, now an owner/driver for RFK Racing (Roush/Fenway/Keselowski) and the 2012 Cup series champion, is looking for his first Cup win at MIS in 25 starts. He will start 33 in the 37-car field with series points leader Chase Elliott starting 13th.
Hamlin is proud of Wallace. Hamlin will start ninth or in Row five, alongside Jones.
“Well, now he has the No. 1 pit stall, that’s big, that will help his team out,” Hamlin said of Wallace. “It’s just going to be all about execution and no mistakes. I think that they are going to be very fast and really a force to kind of deal with when it comes to winning this race, especially if they do execute. I think it could be a good day for that team tomorrow, but I hope that they finish second. I hope that we win.
“It’s a big step and it’s really a testament to the guys back in the shop who are working to make these cars as fast as they can. Overall, I’ve been happy with the progression that they’ve been making. Obviously, the second half of this year they are really starting to step up. I’m happy with what we’re working on is starting to pay off. You want to see results any time you put a lot of effort in, and I think certainly we’re starting to see it with our team right now and the speed we’re starting to show.”
When asked how he’s been able to handle being an owner of one team and a driver on another, Hamlin replied: “You just have to attack each thing as it comes to you. Sometimes the email is about the 11 car, sometimes the email is about the 45 or 23 and I just go back and forth, but I do feel like I try to designate more time to the 11 car on the weekends, and really kind of focus on the 23 and 45 in the middle part of the week.”
Kevin Harvick also needs a win to make the playoffs in his No. 4 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing. He won the August race at MIS in 2018, then again in 2019 before sweeping a doubleheader (consecutive days) during the pandemic year of 2020 at the two-mile superspeedway.
Harvick, who owns 58 career Cup wins and the 2014 series championship, is currently in the midst of a 65-race winless streak and will start 16th.
“I felt like the speed in our car was pretty good and handled well, just missed it from the handling situation there in qualifying, but I think the speed looks fine,” Harvick said.
When asked how his five wins at MIS — Harvick also won the August race in 2010 — translates with the Next Gen car versus previous car, he replied: “There’s no translation. You just don’t know how the race is going to go. You don’t know the style of race. You don’t know where you will be able to run on the racetrack. You don’t know the characteristics of the car. There’s just so many things that you have to figure out and the only way to figure that out is to race.”