DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
It was only a few years ago when Daytona was one of Bubba Wallace’s least-favorite places to race.
“I remember coming here in the Trucks, coming here in Xfinity, and absolutely hating it,” Wallace told reporters with a smile on Wednesday, in the media center at Daytona International Speedway. “Because, well, I don’t want to get into the, ‘I only caused one wreck or two wrecks’ — I don’t want to put that ju-ju on myself — but every wreck that I was a part of in those series, I was just an innocent bystander.
“And it’s just like, man, this is so frustrating.”
A lot has changed since then.
Now, Wallace considers speedway racing one of his strengths. His first career win came at Talladega in 2021. He’s notched two second-place finishes in his past three runs at Daytona.
And in a few days, when the 2023 season opens with the Daytona 500 (2 p.m., FOX, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), Wallace has a chance to deliver 23XI Racing its first crown jewel.
But does he enjoy the Daytona 500 now?
That happened in 2017, when he filled in for Richard Petty Motorsports in the 43 car in 2017, he said.
“I had a blast,” Wallace said. “It was fun. It was new. I was racing against Jimmie Johnson. It was cool. I was enjoying it.
“And now, a few more gray hairs, I feel like an old man being a part of the series. And that moment made me appreciate speedway racing.”
As of Wednesday morning, per CBS, Wallace is at 18-1 odds of winning this year’s Great American Race, tied with William Byron and Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski for ninth-best.
The driver of the No. 23 Toyota has finished second in the Daytona 500 twice — once in 2018 and once last year, edged out by rookie Austin Cindric by only a few feet. He said he has watched the end of that race several times.
“I relived it for probably six months after climbing out of that car,” Wallace said. “I’ve seen like the last 10 laps and seen what we could’ve done differently.” He then chuckled: “And what Cindric could’ve done differently was just put (Ryan) Blaney in the fence a little bit harder. That way he would’ve hooked into the fence, and we would’ve won.”
Wallace, 29, is among a handful of proven drivers who are looking for their first Daytona 500 win. Among the most notable are Kyle Busch and Blaney.
The Penske No. 12 car driver has come oh-so-close several times, much like his competitor and friend in the 23 car. When asked if he enjoyed running the Daytona 500 — NASCAR’s premier and at-times cruel racing event that he’s finished in second in twice — he chuckled and shrugged.
“I like it,” Blaney said. “I’ve always enjoyed speedway racing in general. I didn’t the first couple years I did it, and then I just came to understand that there are things that I can’t control at these places, and I might get destroyed in a wreck I have nothing to do with. And I’ve accepted that, and if it happens, it happens.”