Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has been waiting for the Playoffs to begin since February.
Realistically, Stenhouse knew he’d be part of the NASCAR Cup Series postseason when he won the Daytona 500, the first points-paying event of the year.
Bubba Wallace has been looking forward to the Playoffs since Saturday night.
Wallace is the last driver to qualify for the Cup title battle, a feat he accomplished on points by finishing 12th in the Coke Zero Sugar 400.
Wallace also had to depend on the kindness of others, so to speak. In practical terms, he needed one of the 15 drivers already locked into the Playoffs to win Saturday’s race.
Chris Buescher obliged with his third victory of the season, causing Wallace to exclaim about his old nemesis, “I love Chris Buescher!”
Now the focus shifts to the Playoffs, where Stenhouse and Wallace share a common predicament, despite the divergent stamps on their passports into the postseason.
Both are underdogs, starting the Round of 16 below the cutoff point for the Round of 12. Stenhouse is 14th in the Playoff standings. The driver of the No. 47 JTG-Daugherty Chevrolet earned five Playoff points for his Daytona 500 victory—none since.
Wallace starts the postseason in 16th place with no Playoff points, having failed to win a stage during the regular season.
Nevertheless—strangely, it might seem—both drivers are sanguine about their chances as the series heads for the first Playoff race, Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on USA, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“Yeah, I think going into the first round, I really like all of the race tracks,” said Stenhouse, who has scored just one top 10 (eighth in last year’s spring race) in 15 starts at the Lady in Black. “I love Darlington, Kansas and Bristol. I still feel like we’ve been so close at Bristol, so many times, and I would love to get my first win there this year and then obviously move on.”
Those are optimistic words for a driver who has claimed all three of his career victories on superspeedways—two at Daytona and one at Talladega—but Stenhouse was encouraged by the strength of his Camaro in this year’s spring race at Darlington, where he qualified third and ran seventh in Stage 1 before finishing 13th.
“We were good at Darlington earlier in the year,” Stenhouse said. “We had kind of a misfortune with a flat left-rear tire that we lost time under green pitting. I feel really good about where we are as a team.
“I don’t think we have to win in the first round to make it through by any means, so we’ll go do our jobs each and every week, try to be perfect and let others make mistakes to move on through that round.”
Given their paucity of Playoff points, both Stenhouse and Wallace will have to be nearly flawless to move past the first round.
To Wallace, simply making the Playoffs at the 11th hour gave him sense of immense relief.
“That was the most stressed but also the most locked in I’ve ever been,” said after his successful run at Daytona. “Knowing that this place is mostly out of your control, I just tried to focus on doing the things that I could do.”
After qualifying 37th at Atlanta in early July, Wallace had a frank conversation with his team.
“I said if we got our (act) together, we can do great things in the Playoffs,” said Wallace, who has finished ninth and fifth in his last two Darlington starts, his only two top 10s in 10 career races at the Track Too Tough to Tame.
“I’m so proud of the team from top down, very thankful. It took longer than I wanted, but to get the 23 and 45 (23XI Racing teammate Tyler Reddick) locked in the Playoffs for all our partners…
“We’ve gone through a lot of trials and tribulations. So proud of the effort we put in… No matter how much we set ourselves back, we know that we have a kick-ass group and can bounce back from everything.”
— NASCAR News Wire —