After much fanfare, NBA legend Michael Jordan officially begins his role as co-owner of 23XI Racing, a team he formed with NASCAR Cup Series superstar and three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin. They have hired another of the sport’s brightest stars, Bubba Wallace, to drive the No. 23 Toyota this season.
Wallace knows there are a lot of expectations for him and the new team. He knows there will be a lot of eyeballs and Monday morning quarterbacking judging the success of the new star-studded operation. And the 27-year-old also knows that this is his first and best chance to run up front and possibly get to hoist a NASCAR Cup Series trophy.
Wallace has also taken notice of the significant uptick in minority ownership (music superstar Pitbull owns part of the Daniel Suarez No. 99 Trackhouse Racing team) in NASCAR this season.
“It’s big,” Wallace said. “It shows other minorities, ‘Hey, if these guys are investing, then why can’t we?’ and it will continue to grow our sport. That’s what we need. It’s all about exposure, reaching out to the right people because they have ideas of how they want to see success and grow their name, grow their brand and getting it to be part of NASCAR where a lot of minorities, that’s not really where they go to, which is NASCAR. But we’re changing the game with everything that happened last year.
“I think we’ve put NASCAR on the map in a lot of new areas and a lot of new fans looking to tune in this year, which is huge for all of us. We just need to keep the ball rolling.”
Wallace, who has three career top-five and nine career top-10 finishes, reiterated his eagerness to get the season started next week at Daytona, where he finished runner-up in his first Daytona 500 start in 2018.
“I’ve felt more passion, more competitive, more drive with everything that’s out in front of me,” he said.
“We look at Daytona and look at the whole perspective that this is an incredible opportunity, but we can’t let that get too big. We can’t let it supersede our expectations and our mission to compete. Once you do that, that’s when mistakes come. ‘Oh, didn’t expect that.’ You have to be ready. It’s another season for us and things are a little different.”
Beyond the new team and car, Wallace said he was confident in his own competitiveness behind the wheel.
“I look at the races we had driving the 43 [for Richard Petty Motorsports from 2018-20]. The races where we were running up front and competing we were strong. I look at Indy two years ago and even last year. I know how to race against those guys. Do they expect me to be up there? No. Do they race me different because of it? Yes.
“I think that’s the biggest thing is that’s going to change for other drivers thinking, hopefully, this kid knows what he’s doing up here and so we have to race him a little bit different. I’m not expecting it to be a cakewalk at all. We’re there to race and race hard, and so that’s what I’m looking forward to the most, is having more of those running in the top 10 each and every week and showing we’re a factor and able to contend for wins.”
Holly Cain writes for the NASCAR Wire Service.