How Bubba Wallace is racing for a NASCAR championship despite missing the playoffs

Bubba Wallace is racing for a championship despite sitting 19th in the points standings.

Wallace’s win on Sunday at Kansas advanced 23XI Racing’s No. 45 car to the second round of the owner’s championship. Even though Wallace isn’t one of the 16 drivers racing for the 2022 driver title, the No. 45 car is part of the lesser-known owner’s points championship.

While the driver’s championship is considered to be the bigger deal publicly, the owner’s title is a much bigger financial deal. The money paid out to teams at the end of the season primarily comes via the owner’s points standings. The further the No. 45 car advances into the playoffs, the more money 23XI Racing will earn through the end of the season points fund.

The No. 45 team was started in 2022 when 23XI Racing added a second car for Kurt Busch. The 2004 champion then won at Kansas in May to make himself eligible for the driver title and the car eligible for the owner’s title.

But Busch crashed during qualifying at Pocono in July and suffered a concussion. He’s been out of the car ever since. NASCAR granted Busch a waiver to retain his playoff eligibility but Busch withdrew from playoff consideration ahead of the final regular-season race of the season since he wasn’t sure when he’d be able to return to the car.

Busch’s withdrawal opened up a second opportunity for a driver to make the driver playoffs at Daytona while the No. 45 car stayed locked into the owner playoffs thanks to the performances of substitute driver Ty Gibbs. When Austin Dillon became the 16th driver to win a race during the 26-race regular season at Daytona, Ryan Blaney made the playoffs as the highest winless driver in the points standings in place of Busch.

Bubba Wallace celebrates in Victory Lane after winning a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)
Bubba Wallace got the second NASCAR Cup Series win of his career on Sunday at Kansas. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)

But Blaney’s No. 12 car isn’t part of the owner’s title chase. With 16 different race-winning cars in the regular season, all 16 spots in the owner playoffs were occupied by winning teams.

This is where Wallace comes in. He’s been the driver of the No. 23 car since he became the inaugural driver for the team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan in 2021. But with Gibbs set to replace Busch indefinitely, the team wanted a better chance to race for the owner’s title with the No. 45. So they swapped the cars for Gibbs and Wallace.

“I remember the conversation that Denny pulled me aside down in Florida and he goes, ‘Hey, we want you to drive the 45 and compete for a championship. We believe in you,’ ” Wallace said.

That confidence in Wallace has already paid off. With Erik Jones becoming the first non-playoff driver to win the first race of the playoffs since NASCAR implemented the postseason format in 2004, the No. 45 car is the only car locked into the second round of the owner’s playoffs. And no playoff driver is locked into the second round of the driver’s title ahead of the final race of the first round at Bristol.

Wallace’s win also sets up another scenario that we haven’t seen in the playoff era either. If he keeps running well, he could be racing for an owner’s title at Phoenix against three of the four drivers racing for the driver’s title in the final race of the season. Could we see the No. 45 team celebrating an owner’s title while another driver and team are celebrating a driver’s title? The chances are slim. But it’s possible.

“I mentioned it earlier this week that I thought that this could be the first potential year that somebody wins the race at Phoenix that's not part of the championship four,” Hamlin said after Sunday’s race. “Just simply because we used to — when we used to build our own cars and design our own cars, we would just kind of save the best stuff for the end of the season. Everyone would just kind of front-load a lot of their best people, best parts, best bodies, best cars for the playoffs. There's no secret that really the ones that kept advancing, cars just got faster.”

“They started pushing tech a little bit more. It was just — it wasn't a coincidence that the final four is always [finishing] one, two, three, four. With the [new 2022 Cup Series] car having so much parity, certainly I think this is a trend that could continue.”