Bubba Wallace is not going to win the NASCAR Cup Series championship next season.
A first-year team is unlikely to make an immediate climb to the top of the mountain. But that doesn’t mean 23XI Racing or Wallace should be underestimated. There is no way Michael Jordan will come into NASCAR and be associated with something that isn’t a contender. That just won’t work.
Jordan is an NBA legend and easily the most recognizable athlete in the world. His entering the sport is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, headline going into next season. It is a big damn deal.
But more than that, there are too many good people associated with 23XI Racing for it to fail. So while Wallace might not be the one hoisting the Bill France Cup at the end of the 2021 season, that doesn’t mean he and the team aren’t going to be successful.
Let’s get the criticism of Wallace out of the way first. Keyboard warriors are quick to claim that Wallace hasn’t done anything in a Cup Series car, and he’s going to continue to run 25th to 30th every week. Those same people don’t want to hear how a driver can only carry their equipment so far, and Wallace has not been in the best equipment.
Richard Petty Motorsports is not a winning operation, but Wallace improved his average finish at the end of each season there. And for Wallace and the No. 43 team to pick up six spots in points from 2019 to ’20 was a massive step forward.
Denny Hamlin and Toyota believe in Wallace, and now he’s going to be top equipment. It is nonsense to think Wallace will not know what to do with it and run in the back. Five of Wallace’s six wins in the Camping World Truck Series came in a Toyota, as did four of his six wins in the then K&N Pro Series East.
“I look at something like – now it’s a little different – but a Brad Keselowski when he was running in his parent’s equipment three laps down,” said Hamlin. “I’ll never forget, I’m leaving Mexico City and I’m sitting next to Dave Rogers on the plane, and he said, ‘where’s the next you coming from?’ I said, ‘Brad Keselowski’. He’s like, ‘he runs three laps (down).’ I said, ‘Yeah, but you just see something. It’s not his results; he hasn’t had any results.’ But there was something that I saw, as a driver, that given good equipment, he could contend.
“That’s kind of what I see with Bubba. I know what his cars are capable of, in my mind, and I see his ability and what he’s able to get out of it. And I see that if he had a faster car, he’d probably would be much, much higher and much better and probably contend, and he’s contended quite a few times (last) year for race wins.”
David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, views next year as a reunion with Wallace. To Wilson, Wallace has proven he can win at each level when given the right equipment and with the right people around him.
“I think once he left Joe Gibbs Racing a few years back, I don’t know that he’s had the complete package to put him in position to compete on a more consistent basis,” said Wilson. “We’re just delighted that we have a shot to pick up where we left off (with him), and Bubba, he’s going to have some pressure, and that’s the pressure that he loves to have. So, it’s going to be a great story.”
Sometimes it is easiest to liken the path to success in auto racing to putting together a puzzle. All the pieces need to be in the box, and those pieces have their place, fitting just right to form the picture.
23XI Racing has dumped out nearly all the pieces of its puzzle out onto the table. Wallace is the driver, Michael Wheeler, who won a Daytona 500 and Southern 500 with Hamlin, is the crew chief. Toyota is the engine supplier, and Joe Gibbs Racing is the alliance partner providing chassis and technical information. Wallace will be in competition meetings with two Cup Series champions (Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.), and drivers who have won a combined 128 races.
Earlier this week, 23XI Racing revealed five sponsors for the No. 23 Toyota Camry. Four of the five have worked with Wallace previously (McDonald’s, DoorDash, Columbia Sportswear, Root Insurance), and along with Dr Pepper, are increasing their NASCAR presence in supporting him and 23XI Racing.
Money buys speed; that goes without saying. The significant part, or puzzle piece, is that Wallace is fully-funded for the ‘21 season.
“It’s definitely a breath of fresh air, for sure, having the opportunity in front of me that I have,” said Wallace. “As soon as the race ended in Phoenix, Amanda [Carter] and I and the dog went on the road trip, but every day I was thinking about the opportunity that’s sitting in front of me.
“It’s December 14th, so 17 more days until January 1, and that’s when my new motto of ‘no more excuses’ starts. There are no more excuses why we can’t run up front and compete for wins, and show the true talents that I believe I have and this team with our partnership with JGR and Toyota and having all our partners there as one to enjoy the success we should have, and we will have moving forward. I’m beyond excited.”
Driver, sponsors, alliance partners, and therefore equipment, are all in place and are top-notch. Also, Steve Lauletta is interim team president, helping Hamlin and company get everything up and running. For background, Lauletta is a racing veteran and recently spent 10 years as Chip Ganassi Racing team president.
The full picture of where 23XI Racing will fall in the Cup Series landscape is still to be revealed, but good people and good equipment are the best puzzle pieces to start positioning. If everything falls into place correctly, 23XI Racing could become the next Furniture Row Racing – an alliance team that became just as good as the house team. But either way, with what 23XI Racing has in place and the people involved with it, again, underestimate them at your own risk because this team will not fail.