Long: Indy success provides emotional lift for Bubba Wallace, Jeb Burton

Dustin Long
NBC Sports

INDIANAPOLIS — Amid the weekend’s celebrations at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the most emotional moments came not in Victory Lane but on pit road.

One driver cried. Another beamed.

Jeb Burton and Bubba Wallace have faced various challenges in their careers. The 27-year-old Burton, son of 2002 Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton, has fought to remain relevant in NASCAR. The 25-year-old Wallace, whose dynamic personality is engaging, has been open about his struggles on the track and off.

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In a sport where the focus often shifts to the next young driver, it’s easy to forget how much racing Burton and Wallace both could have left and the impact they could make.

Of course, racing, as in life, isn’t always fair. Short tracks across the country feature drivers who had the talent to race in NASCAR’s premier series but never got the chance whether because they didn’t have the proper funding, right look or were too old when discovered.

So in that sense, Burton and Wallace can be considered among the fortunate to have climbed NASCAR’s ladder. That isn’t satisfying for either, though. They want more.

Burton has not had a full-time ride in any of NASCAR’s top three national series since a 2015 Cup effort with BK Racing, a team that no longer exists after going through bankruptcy court a year ago. Burton has pieced together rides with whatever sponsorship he can find. He’s run three Cup, 14 Xfinity and four Truck races since 2017.

He will drive two more Xfinity races this season (Texas and Miami) for JR Motorsports, giving him seven starts in the team’s No. 8 car this season.

Burton finished fourth in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Indianapolis, tying his career-best result. He could not contain the tears after exiting his car.

Asked where the emotion was coming from, Burton said in a quivering voice: “Two years ago I didn’t know if I was going to drive again. That’s where it comes from.”

Burton later said: “Every time I get into a race car I feel like I’ve got something to prove. You don’t know, this could be the last time out there. You don’t know. I cried like a baby in my TV interview because it means so much. You don’t know when this could be your last day. You’ve just got to cherish every moment.”

That’s not been easy for Wallace at times this season. He tweeted in early May that he had not “been (in) a good place for some time now.” A few days later at Kansas Speedway, Wallace said how “you try to be the best you can and sometimes it ain’t good enough.”

The session with reporters ended with Wallace later burying his head in his hands.

He won a segment in the Monster Energy Open in May, received a heartfelt embrace from Ryan Blaney and was emotional in his interview with FS1, saying “Damn, I’ve been feeling like a failure for a really long time.”

His struggles on the track haven’t helped. Richard Petty Motorsports struggled to find proper funding for nearly the first six months of the year. The results showed.

Until Sunday’s Brickyard 400, Wallace had not finished better than 14th this season and had only four top-20 results.

After he finished third Sunday, Wallace screamed on his radio: “Yeah! That ain’t supposed to happen! That is not supposed to happen! We did it! Nice job!”

Wallace could not stop smiling after climbing from his car. Richard Petty hugged him.

“We needed this,” Wallace said. “We needed this weekend. We unloaded with speed and I was bragging to everybody.”

Wallace called Sunday “an unforgettable day at Indy.”

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There are many places one can find points gained or lost over a 26-race regular season that can determine who makes the playoffs. Such is the case for Daniel Suarez, who finished four points behind Ryan Newman for the final playoff spot Sunday.

Here are a couple of key moments this season that had they gone differently could have given Suarez the chance to race for a championship instead of Newman:

# Suarez won the pole at Kentucky in July but did not score any stage points.

Suarez led the opening 49 laps at Kentucky but when a caution came out, the team decided to change four tires. Two cars took no tires and 10 cars took two tires during that caution. Suarez restarted 13th, the first car on four tires. He finished the opening stage in 14th and scored no stage points.

In the second stage, Suarez had a flat tire and had to pit under green and then was called for speeding. He fell three laps down at one point and never had a chance to score any stage points.

That was one of three times this season that the driver who started on the pole failed to score any stage points. Austin Dillon did not tally any stage points after starting on the pole at Auto Club Speedway in March, and Denny Hamlin failed to do so after starting on the pole at Bristol in August.

Drivers who started on the pole scored an average of 10.2 stage points per race in the regular season this year. Suarez could have used those 10 points Sunday.

# Newman’s extra pit stop at Michigan in August.

Twenty-seven cars, including Newman, pitted for fuel on Lap 150 at Michigan, putting them all on the edge of making it the rest of the race on fuel. Newman and teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. came back to pit road the next lap to top off on fuel.

With no caution the rest of the way, fuel mileage was critical. Newman went from 18th to 12th in the final three laps as cars ahead of him had to pit for fuel or ran out on the track.

Newman ran out of fuel on Turn 4 of the last lap but easily made it across the finish line. Had he not stopped on Lap 151 to top off, he wouldn’t have made it to the end and would have lost several positions.

Instead, those six points gained by others running out fuel helped Newman secure the last playoff spot.

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Ryan Newman helped snap the playoff drought for Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 6 car.

The car once piloted by Hall of Famer Mark Martin last made the playoffs in 2006 — the year Jimmie Johnson won the first of his record-tying seven Cup titles.

Newman’s team has gone through key changes since last season’s finale in Miami. Scott Graves became the team’s crew chief for this season. The team also has a different engineer and car chief from last year’s Miami race.

“Our team is so new,” Newman said. “It is newer than I have ever experienced. That is huge. With all the changes we had in our sport in the offseason, I think it was underestimated by me and a huge change to tackle.

“I feel like we have done a good job but to answer your question, we just need to continue to progress to make our cars go faster. I think we have had some good strategy and pit stops and good moves on the race track. All those types of things. Good things need to turn into great things and keep progressing as a team.”

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Leaders crashing late in a race can can create ill will and lead to spicy exchange between competitors. Not for Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Indianapolis.

Instead, fans saw sportsmanship after the two drivers wrecked with seven laps left.

Reddick approached Bell on the track and gave him a tap on the back.

Reddick told NBCSN after leaving the infield care center: “No one in this garage or in NASCAR racing in general should ever question Christopher’s driving ability. That wasn’t the issue there.

“His car just simply got loose, and we just got together and we didn’t really have a lot of race track. It’s (the) end of the race, we’re going for it type deal. Nothing against Christopher. He did nothing wrong. His car just got loose. Just part of racing at the end at this place.”

Refreshing to see how this situation was handled.

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Shortly after celebrating Kevin Harvick‘s victory at Indianapolis, crew chief Rodney Childers was focused on the challenge of the playoffs, which begin Sunday (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“I think this season is just tough,”  he said. “I think it’s going to be tougher the next 10 races than it’s ever been. You’ve got 550 (horsepower) races that you have to be good at. You’ve got 750 races you’ve got to be good at. You’ve got road course cars you’ve got to be good at. You’ve got to have a good Martinsville car. There’s so many different things in the playoffs this year that it’s going to be so important to have great race cars every week.”

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The quote of the weekend belonged to Kevin Harvick’s son Keelan.

Asked what it was like to kiss the bricks after his father’s win, Keelan said: “They don’t taste great, but it was fun kissing the bricks.”

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