It took long hours and a lot of work, but Mike Wheeler, crew chief and competition director at 23XI Racing, believes the team hit the ground running as a new operation in the NASCAR Cup Series. But while proud of the preparation the team had coming into the season, executing on track is another part of the equation, and that’s been the story of their season.
“Getting Bubba (Darrell Wallace) used to driving a (Joe Gibbs Racing) car, a Toyota, there are a lot of things with every track you go to that he’s not as comfortable with and we are still changing, like brake pedals and braking systems to make him what he needs,” said Wheeler. “It’s unique because every driver is slightly different — some guys can figure it out, other guys you have to go testing to see what things you have to change.
“We’re obviously limited with the pandemic and cost reductions for lack of practice and testing, so that’s been one of those things that’s a slow mover. But we were pretty well prepared for what we were going to face, it’s a matter of actually going and doing it.”
There have been wrecks or damaged race cars. The pit crew also needed time to jell and was one of the top three things Wheeler said needed to be worked on in the season’s first quarter. But after a couple of changes and getting more time together, they’ve come together.
“Car preparation has been good; we had a couple of hiccups early in the year that cost us some points and positions, but we’ve been, knock on wood, solid there,” Wheeler continued. “But still battling the best guys in the business. They’re really good at what they do, and if you’re a little bit off, it’s easy to go from a 10th-place car to a 20th-place car with a little bit of damage or a missed opportunity.
“The progression is never-ending as much as we have our ducks in a row as far as weekly progress between working on (Next Gen), thinking about testing, and a possible expansion here at the shop were always growing as a single-car team and looking to progress as we go.”
This week, Wallace told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that some of their struggles have been “new team blues.” But he acknowledged that while much has been out of their control, there have been lapses in execution either by Wallace or the team and, aside from maybe Daytona, they haven’t put a winning car on the track.
Growing pains were expected, but there were also lofty expectations put on the group. The team is co-owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan, and both are used to success in their respective fields.
In a sit-down at Daytona before the start of the season, Jordan cracked with Fox Sports that “we don’t sign checks for losers.” The goal was to have a few wins before the end of the season.
Wallace is 21st in the point standings going into the Indianapolis road course with one top-10 finish. With an average finish of 20.2, Wallace has led 49 laps.
“It’s kind of hard to grade,” said Wheeler of the season. “I knew starting a team from scratch would be difficult; I knew getting Bubba to run highly up the chart and having good performance would be a challenge too. I definitely expected to be running better and higher up in points as far as what we had for equipment and team. So, not an A, but I really can’t tell you we’re doing terrible or poor because a lot of the effort is there. A lot of challenges coming around the corner that we were not expecting, but definitely battling the battles we have to battle, and we are making progress.
“I would say without practice — and Bubba’s new experience in the car is definitely a bigger challenge than we ever anticipated — but our goals are similar in the fact that I know everyone thought before the season started we could go win two races; that was something that MJ said. But honestly, we knew that wherever we started, we wanted to make sure we made progress and worked to be a contender in the future. We’ve gotten there.
“We’ve had some highlights of winning a stage and leading laps and having top-10 cars a few times, but we haven’t been able to put a lot of races together as a whole event. But we are getting better at that. Obviously, we’re coming [up] short of where we want to be right now, but it’s a never-ending battle.”