Alejandro Alvarez | NASCAR Digital Media
Typically, “Game 7” is used in reference to a do-or-die contest in the playoffs of an already ongoing sports league.
But for a handful of drivers heading into Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET, USA Network, NBC Sports App, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), the phrase should be on the minds of those who need a win to clinch a playoff berth.
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Perhaps no driver needs to change his season more than Bubba Wallace.
To say the least, this is not the year the 28-year-old or 23XI Racing expected from the No. 23 second-year Toyota team.
Midway through the 2022 season, Wallace has compiled just two top-10 finishes with his only top-five result in the season opener Daytona 500. In 10 of 18 races this year, he has finished outside the top 20.
Wallace’s average finish of 22.0 ranks 27th among full-timers, below that of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (21.4), Ty Dillon (21.2) and Justin Haley (18.9). Dillon returned to the Cup Series full-time with the newly merged Petty GMS Racing while Haley is running his first full Cup season with Kaulig Racing.
The results trend is still going in the wrong direction for Wallace, as he’s DNF in four of the last seven races.
Combined with the poor finishes, there were a few hiccups with his team in the pits.
Slow stops, tire issues and penalties sometimes thwarted big runs for the No. 23 team and while Wallace recovered with a top 10 finish at Kansas Speedway and a 12th-place finish at Nashville Superspeedway, it didn’t. not prevented from attacking the team on his radio after mistakes in the race.
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Recent criticism of the pit crew led to a crew swap between Wallace and Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell.
This is Wallace’s fifth full year in the Cup Series and he has yet to break into the playoffs. However, with his track record on the superspeedways, Sunday presents Wallace with a golden opportunity to turn a so far frustrating season into a fresh slate for the second half and the playoffs.
It’s no secret that Wallace has a knack for racing well on superspeedways.
Below is a breakdown of its superspeedway history.
|TRACK||DEPARTURES||TOP FIVE||TOP 10||LED TOWERS||VICTORIES|
Wallace owns two second-place finishes at the Daytona 500 and finished second to Ryan Blaney in last year’s regular season finale at Daytona. Atlanta’s re-profiled 1.54-mile layout will use the same superspeedway rules configuration as the larger Daytona and Talladega ovals.
While there isn’t a large sample size at the reconfigured Atlanta Oval, Wallace would have to be aggressive to force his way to the front of the pack as he’s spent more than two-thirds of the race spring in the top 15, according to NASCAR loop data.
The reason Wallace should consider Sunday a “do-or-die” for his playoff hopes is that the stretch of trails ahead before the regular-season finale at Daytona doesn’t favor him, to put it mildly.
Two road courses are part of the next six races after Atlanta – a style of track where Wallace has yet to find solace.
Here’s a breakdown of Wallace’s history in the six races after Atlanta.
|TRACK||DEPARTURES||TOP 10||LED TOWERS||AVG. TO END|
|Indy Road courses||1||0||0||13.0|
Of the eight races Wallace has entered at Richmond, he has only finished on the lead lap once and that happened in the fall of 2019 where he scored his best finish on the 0 oval .75 miles from 12th.
A winless Sunday wouldn’t be a complete loss of hope for the No. 23 team with several more races left before Daytona wraps up the regular season, but time is running out for Wallace if he and his team aim to reach the playoffs. This may be the best time to strike.
According to BetMGM, Wallace is a popular pick to win Atlanta with 6.8% from the handle, which is fourth highest among all drivers.
Wallace enters Sunday 25 in the points standings – 177 points below the playoff boundary line.