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It was Chris Buescher who drove his No. 17 RFK Racing Ford to victory in Saturday's regular season NASCAR Cup Series finale at Daytona. But the biggest screams of joy after the Coke Zero Sugar 400 came from the man who finished 12th: Bubba Wallace.

"That was my emotion," Wallace said. "I let all my emotion out on the cool-down lap."

Finally, the 23XI Racing driver could breathe a sigh of relief the second Buescher crossed the finish line. After an entire summer on the playoff bubble, no new winner meant Wallace had finally earned his first NASCAR postseason bid in six tries.

It was a moment that earned tears from his wife, Amanda, props from co-owner Denny Hamlin and a hug from the GOAT, Michael Jordan, who was on hand to see both his Toyotas crack NASCAR's postseason code.

It took a rollercoaster night for Wallace to get there, watching rookie Ty Gibbs close in on points before the No. 54 Toyota sparked the night's biggest wreck. A 12-car incident wiped out Gibbs along with two proven Daytona 500 champions, Austin Cindric and Austin Dillon, who could have knocked Wallace out with a victory.

"Just got hit in a bad spot there," Gibbs said of the wreck. "And didn't make it."

With Gibbs out, all eyes turned toward Chase Elliott, who needed a Hail Mary win to sneak in past Wallace. The 2020 Cup champion seemed well-positioned to get there, connected to Kevin Harvick until a late caution for Ryan Preece's flip forced the race into a fateful overtime restart.

"I needed to stay locked onto the 4 car better," Elliott said of what happened next. "And I just couldn't stay locked to him like the 6 was to the 17. Ultimately, that was the difference."

As Buescher got pushed by teammate Brad Keselowski, RFK Racing soared to the front and scored the win. That left Wallace in the position of sending them a thank you card while rewarding the patience of 23XI, who gifted him a multi-year contract extension last year despite his 0-for-playoff record.

"I'm just mentally exhausted," Wallace said about getting over the hump. "Maybe tomorrow I'll wake up crying. I don't know... I think having that weight off your shoulders just allows you to breathe. So that's what I'm focused on, taking a deep breath and going back to work Monday."

He'll start that workweek seeded dead last among 16 playoff drivers. But Wallace can still say something Elliott, Alex Bowman, Daniel Suarez and so many others can't: he's a 2023 Cup championship contender.

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Green: RFK Racing. Here's a quick breakdown of Chris Buescher's Cup career: two wins in his first 278 Cup starts followed by three in his last five. Talk about coming out of nowhere. And teammate Brad Keselowski is realizing his dream of putting both RFK cars in the playoffs as co-owner. 

"I've been here for 15 years at RFK, right?" Buescher said after the race. "I've seen it in a lot of different scenarios. I'm so proud of it now, realizing the work that it took to get it to right now, what we've been able to accomplish."

Yellow: Aric Almirola. A veteran widely rumored to be retiring after this season, Almirola's third-place Daytona finish was his best since winning New Hampshire way back in July 2021. It just wasn't enough to make the postseason for a Stewart-Haas Racing organization that saw three of their four drivers miss the cut.

Red: Ross Chastain. 19 laps led were all for naught as Chastain slipped back to 17th in Daytona's final stage. Since winning at Nashville in June, breaking a one-year drought, he's gone nine straight races without a top-five result.

Speeding Ticket: Hendrick Motorsports. HMS is NASCAR's most accomplished organization, winning nine championships alone during the sport's playoff era (2004-present). All four teams are routinely expected to make the playoffs each year and compete for a spot in the Championship 4.

Not this year. Injuries and poor performance relegated both Elliott and Alex Bowman to the sidelines, leaving them as little more than spoilers this fall. While William Byron tied Martin Truex Jr. as this year's top seed, he and Kyle Larson represent the smallest HMS contingent in the playoffs since 2016.


Ryan Preece was the night's big story, as his No. 41 Ford was taken for a wild ride after contact with Erik Jones turned him sideways on the backstretch.

The resulting barrel roll was something we haven't seen at Daytona much since NASCAR introduced enhanced safety protocols in the wake of Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s death here in 2001. It's easily the most vicious wreck we've seen in the sport since Ryan Newman's last-lap wreck in the 2020 Daytona 500.

Thankfully, Preece had no serious injuries despite being taken to a local hospital for observation, and he was released Sunday morning. Unbelievably, it took him less than 90 minutes to type up this tweet (potentially from the ER).