|ALL PHOTOS: Brock Beard|
by Brock Beard
Bubba Wallace picked up the 4th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s South Point 400 at the Las Vegas Speedway when his #45 McDonald’s Toyota crashed after 94 of 267 laps.
The finish, which came in Wallace’s 181st series start, was his second of the season and first since Sonoma, 17 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 24th for the #45, the 182nd for Toyota, and the 638th from a crash. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 44th for the #45, the 388th for Toyota, and the 1,131st from a crash.
The Las Vegas weekend began on an emotional note Saturday morning as Kurt Busch announced he would not be running for the rest of this year, nor would he run full-time in 2023. The reason was his concussion suffered in a qualifying crash at Pocono, which put Ty Gibbs into his #45 and ultimately led to Busch declining his medical waiver for the Playoffs. Incidentally, Busch’s announcement also confirmed that Tyler Reddick – signed earlier this summer – would run the #45 next year, his #8 at Richard Childress Racing already the chosen destination for Kurt’s brother Kyle Busch.
Kurt's announcement is the latest chapter in a year whose debate over safety is comparable to that of the 2000 to 2001 seasons. At its center are changes to NASCAR's problematic NextGen car, particularly the disproportionate effect on drivers even in low-speed impacts. This same race, scheduled on the 11th anniversary of Dan Wheldon's tragic death in the IndyCar Series finale at the same track, was also missing the track's most recent Cup Series winner. Alex Bowman took the checkered flag in the spring, setting his own course to the Playoffs, only to be undone by a concussion suffered in a crash at Texas. Bowman had just days earlier tweeted he would not run these next three races during his continued recovery. NASCAR held at least one safety meeting with the drivers during the Vegas weekend, where Noah Gragson finished 11th in Bowman's car.
These same Playoffs saw 23XI Racing change car numbers, meaning Gibbs would run the #23 and Wallace the #45 while keeping their teams intact. This gave Wallace the opportunity to compete for the 2022 NASCAR Owners Championship, which came at the perfect time. In the Playoff race at Kansas, Wallace took his second career victory, pulling a season sweep along with Kurt’s victory on the same track in the spring. While the following races at Bristol, Texas, and Talladega saw him finish no better than 16th, he recovered from an early stop-and-go penalty on the Charlotte “Roval” to take a strong 7th. Vegas would come next.
The preliminary entry list for Sunday’s race showed both Wallace and Ty Gibbs carrying sponsorship from MoneyLion, which also bought a billboard a few blocks down the track on Las Vegas Boulevard. But instead, only Gibbs carried the sponsor with Wallace running the McDonald’s scheme on the #45 for the first time since the number swap. Wallace ran 14th in practice and qualified 9th with a lap of 182.033mph (29.665 seconds), but was still just fifth among the non-Playoff drivers in time trials.
Securing the 36th and final spot was B.J. McLeod, whose #78 Pala Casino Ford was slowest of the Chartered entries occupying the garage. With no drivers sent to the rear, McLeod remained on the outside of the final row with Todd Gilliland’s #38 Ruedebusch Development & Construction Ford.
When the green flag dropped, McLeod got the jump on Gilliland and closed on Cody Ware’s #51 Nurtec ODT / United Breast Cancer Foundation Ford. But McLeod passed neither car, and remained in the 36th spot at the end of Lap 1. By Lap 5, McLeod, Ware, and Ware’s teammate J.J. Yeley in the #15 ConnectUS Kyocera Ford had lost touch with the pack. Yeley opened an advantage over Ware, but Ware passed him back on Lap 13 as McLeod continued to lose ground. By Lap 21, race leader Tyler Reddick in the #8 Alsco Chevrolet passed McLeod to the inside, and by Lap 26 was running behind 10th-place runner Kyle Busch in the #18 M&M’s Toyota. Further ahead, both Ware and Yeley were still on the lead lap when Yeley dropped Ware back to 35th. Ware was then lapped, followed by Yeley by Lap 32.
Green-flag pit stops shuffled the order, starting with Cole Custer, who pitted his #41 Feeding America / Wow Wow Ford and fell to 36th on Lap 39. Ware’s own pit stop dropped him to last on Lap 45, but Yeley came in for a second stop due to a loose wheel, dropping the #15 to last on Lap 47. Still under green on Lap 67, Yeley bounced off the outside wall, causing damage to control arm, but not the critical toe link. He pitted a third time for repairs and returned to the track noticeably off the pace. He remained under power when on Lap 78, 6th-place Kyle Busch spun into the grass off Turn 4. The ensuing caution ended Stage 1, won by Bubba Wallace.
|Larson's car after the tangle with Wallace.|
Wallace had a strong car early, taking the lead on Lap 57 from Daniel Suarez in the #99 Kid Rock’s Honky Tonk Chevrolet. Wallace defended the spot through the caution-flag pit stops after Stage 1 and chose the inside line for the restart. But when the race restarted, Suarez passed Wallace high, bringing with him teammate Ross Chastain in the #1 Tootsie’s Chevrolet. By Lap 95, Wallace had dropped to 6th place in a battle with Kyle Larson in the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet. Coming off Turn 4, Larson slid up and nearly got into Wallace, causing the #45 to bounce off the outside wall. Wallace then cut hard left, hooking Larson in the left-rear and sending both cars into the outside wall. Caught in the rapidly closing hole between Larson and the wall was Playoff contender Christopher Bell, whose #20 Rheem Toyota spun with damage to the left-rear. Bell made it to pit road while Wallace and Larson climbed from their destroyed cars in the infield grass. Wallace confronted Larson and shoved him many times before he returned to pit road.
Scoring recorded Wallace behind Larson, and the pair dropped to the final two spots behind Yeley sometime during the ensuing caution. At the time, Yeley was five laps down, having pitted two more times by Lap 85 and been shaken out of line on the restart following Busch’s spin. Bell’s crew made lengthy repairs to the left-rear, applying tape and working on the suspension, but their ten-minute “Crash Clock” expired. On Lap 102, Bell pulled behind the wall and up to his hauler, where just a few feet away Larson’s car had been towed back to the garage area. As a Hendrick Motorsports representative instructed the gathering crowd not to take photos, Wallace’s #45 was towed in on Lap 105 – and parked in the stall directly next to Larson’s. Both crews worked quietly as they loaded up. Track security formed up two lines on either side of the bank of haulers, fencing Bell’s car in as well. Wallace walked to his hauler soon after his car arrived in the garage.
As of this writing, NASCAR has reported they will be investigating the incident further this week. Wallace was not called to NASCAR’s hauler after the wreck.
Wallace, Larson, and Bell took the final three spots in the results. Taking 33rd was Ty Dillon, whose #42 Lucky 29 Vodka Chevrolet had suspension issues. In fact, Dillon’s car struggled to make the left turn into the garage. He at first approached at too shallow of an angle, forcing him to stop, then make another turn. Rounding out the group was Landon Cassill, whose #77 Voyager: Crypto for All Chevrolet caught a toe link in the radiator, then spun and made some contact with the Turn 4 wall with the right-rear. NASCAR officials photographed the right-rear of his car after it stopped behind the hauler. Cassill was uninjured in the incident.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #45 since August 14, 2022, when Ty Gibbs’ run in 23XI’s Jordan Brand Toyota ended with a blown engine after 180 laps around Richmond. The number had never finished last in a Cup race at Las Vegas.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
36) #45-Bubba Wallace / 94 laps / crash / led 29 laps / won stage 1
35) #5-Kyle Larson / 94 laps / crash
34) #20-Christopher Bell / 94 laps / dvp
33) #42-Ty Dillon / 237 laps / suspension
32) #77-Landon Cassill / 246 laps / crash
2022 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Live Fast Motorsports (6)
2nd) 23XI Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing (4)
3rd) Spire Motorsports (3)
4th) Penske Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Team Hezeberg, Trackhouse Racing (2)
5th) Kaulig Racing, NY Racing Team, Richard Childress Racing, Rick Ware Racing (1)
2022 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet, Ford (12)
2nd) Toyota (9)
2022 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP