Starting a new team in NASCAR is hard enough. But driving for a brand new team that features co-ownership of NBA legend Michael Jordan and is already laden with above-average expectations? That's more than enough pressure for anyone to handle. Of course, Bubba Wallace is used to the pressure by now.
Wallace was thrust into the national spotlight last season like no other driver currently in the NASCAR Cup Series. He publicly pushed NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at tracks and speed up its efforts around diversity and inclusion. He embraced the Black Lives Matter social justice movement with his Martinsville paint scheme. And after a rope tied like a noose in his garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway was first thought to be a hate crime before an FBI investigation revealed it was an unintentional coincidence, Wallace became the direct focus of both mainstream news and frightful online rhetoric.
Yet that early summertime period when he was thrust into the national focus coincided with some of his best driving of the season. The three races between Martinsville and Talladega in June marked the only time Wallace drove the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford to three consecutive top-15 finishes.
The intense scrutiny of Wallace during that time — and the corresponding rise of his national profile as NASCAR's only Black driver — no doubt led to the opportunity ahead of him this season with Jordan and co-owner Denny Hamlin's 23XI Racing (pronounced "twenty-three eleven"). Hamlin and Jordan have long been friends. Jordan, a self-proclaimed race fan, credited Wallace and NASCAR's response last summer as driving his involvement.
"Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity, and there have been few Black owners," said Jordan. "The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more."
23XI is a Toyota team with a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing using a charter purchased from the shuttered Germain Racing outfit. Hamlin, who says he's committed to driving the JGR No. 11 for many more years, sees the operation as something he wants to guide far into the future. For that to work for Hamlin, the team will need to get up to speed quickly. Jordan clarified that expectation in an interview with NBC and FOX when the deal was announced.
"My biggest conversation to Denny was, 'Look, I don't want to get in there to just go around the races and just go around and around and around and finish up 18th, 19th, 20th, 30th,'" Jordan said. "I want to win. I want to be put in a position for the best chance for us to win. That's my competitive nature. That's always been who I am."
The investment from Hamlin and Jordan combined with the JGR alliance provides the best possible avenue for 23XI to become a success more quickly than most upstart teams. And Wallace — likely stepping in to the best opportunity of his NASCAR career but still seeking his first Cup win — has shown plenty of flashes of potential.
But it won't be easy. The margins separating the field at the Cup level are already razor-thin even for established teams. 23XI Racing has the opportunity to get to the front. It will just take some time.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2021 Cup Championship: 60/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)