NBA Hall of Fame basketball star Michael Jordan and NASCAR Cup standout wheelman Denny Hamlin announced in September 2020 they would be forming a NASCAR Cup Series team around driver Bubba Wallace. Immediately known as 23XI Racing, the nascent organization hit the ground running. Led by front man Hamlin, Wallace and the team performed quite well in 2021, and took a win at rain-lashed Talladega in October (pictured above).
Further fortifying the new effort was the hiring of longtime motorsports executive Steve Lauletta to be president as well as the addition of second team driver Kurt Busch for the 2022 season. All of which leaves Hamlin with a very full plate. Poised to enter his 18th year of NASCAR competition Hamlin, a driver with 578 Cup starts, 46 wins and some 162,443 laps to his credit, not only will the Daytona 500 champion once again be attempting to win the NASCAR Cup crown that he dearly wants, he’ll also be working to keep the trains on the tracks with all things 23XI Racing.
Q: You had a hell of a lot going on leading into the NASCAR Cup Series finale at Phoenix. So much so that you told the media, “My life is chaos, and I just, I throve under chaos.”
Denny Hamlin: I mean, for me, my life is chaos. I just look at my daily schedule and all the things that I have to do and I know a big story with a lot of people during this past year has been, “Well, how are you going to balance being an owner versus doing your job as a driver? How are you going to balance all of your family stuff going on?” You know, all of that has fueled me to focus even more. It’s no different than when they say, “Beware of the injured athlete,” right? They say that because the injured athlete always double focuses or doubles down on his efforts because he doesn’t want be the weak link. I feel that’s the way my life has always been. I really go out there and try and prove something and I always race with my chip on my shoulder.
Q: You wear your heart on your sleeve, don’t you?
DH: Yeah. I mean, listen, when you’re in trouble, I look at my social engagement and all of that stuff and it’s through the roof. It’s like, “Well, you can maybe not like me, but I am certainly in people’s brains and I’m part of their discussion. Good or bad.” That’s a good thing. It’s a good thing for myself and my team because we are making some noise.
Q: Then lockdown and all that came with it had a heavy hand in influencing you on looking into the potential reality of owning a race team, didn’t it?
DH: It honestly did. It made me feel like, you know, “If this is what retirement is going to be like, then I’ve got to come up with something to do.” And I always knew that I wanted to start a business. I didn’t know what that business was going to be. I really ran my dad’s trailer shop when I was just 17 years old in high school. He had back issues and he couldn’t really spend a whole lot of time there, so I’d get out on a work program in school at noon and go over there and work at my dad’s trailer shop until 5 p.m. and then I’d walk two bays over and work on my race car until 10 or 11 at night.
While it didn’t work out well for my schooling — I kind of had grades where I just barely got by — I was just so enamored with work and racing that I just didn’t focus as much as I would of or should have with school. Thank goodness it all worked out. I always just wanted to have a business and be in charge of people and make decisions and figure out how to make a business grow and really strive. What I knew the most about was racing, so I called my friends at Toyota and we talked about some ideas about some things and next thing you know we are starting a race team.
Q: I’ve spoken with team president Steve Lauletta, as well as Kurt Busch and Bubba Wallace about the 23XI Racing effort and you guys really want to have your own way of doing things, don’t you?
DH Yeah, it has been really great to start from scratch. I looked into purchasing other established race teams, but I honestly didn’t feel like I was going to have the control that I really wanted to have. It’s not an ego thing — I just feel like I want to run it a certain kind of way. I want us to be different in a lot of different ways. I just feel that it has really been a blessing to have Jordan as a partner and we have business guys helping us on the money side and on the business side. They’ve been letting me do my thing on the competition side to put this thing together with the appropriate people that I think we can succeed with.
Q: In the past year or two, NASCAR has made some major moves in modernizing the sport. Do you guys feel that are you in step with it all?
DH: We do. We’re very blessed to be coming into the sport when we are, simply because with the Next Gen car coming in, you’re able to run your organization differently than NASCAR teams have been run in the past because everyone is restructuring. Now, the unfortunate part of restructuring for most of the teams that are already established is that they have people that they are having to cut. They’re trying to figure out who they are going to put in this place or that place, or trying to figure out who they do need and who they don’t need and all that. Us, we are starting from a blank sheet of paper, so we don’t have people that we are trying to re-organize. We are actually hiring people and we are growing and with that we are also able to look at a new structure and say, “Is this a more efficient way to run a race team?”
Q: Do you feel it all kind of fell into place with some very important partners and relationships?
DH: It did. I mean we could not do this without our partners, without people like Monster Energy and DoorDash and McDonald’s. We can’t do it without them, so I can’t thank them enough for taking a chance on a relatively new race team. And for us to get a win in our very first season was an unbelievable accomplishment and I think we are primed to do really, really well and make a great and deep playoff run hopefully next year. I really am excited about where our team is headed in the future. I truly believe this is kind of a five-year plan that I’m building here to be a championship-contending organization. I’m putting the pieces in places that I believe that are going to get us there.
Q: You’re front and center with all things 23XI Racing aren’t you?
DH: Yeah, I’m very involved in it. From a financial standpoint or a time standpoint or a work standpoint, I never half-ass anything. I always do things as if they were mine or how would I want things done for me. I learned that a lot from Joe Gibbs. I think that’s why you saw when Tony Stewart left Joe Gibbs and built Stewart-Haas Racing (in 2008) it was championship organization. It gained credibility. I’ve taken that mentality to the race team that I now own. That formula works and I believe that beyond our drivers, hopefully between me and Michael, that’s another two assets that sponsors believe when they sign on with our team — they get access to us. For me, that’s really, really an invaluable thing to have and I really think that we are primed for success.
Q: Is Michael Jordan is a genuine NASCAR fan and all in with 23XI Racing?
DH: He really is. This started from childhood. His dad used to take him to races as a kid and that’s where is passion for racing started. So even beyond when we started this race team, I would talk to him on the regular about racing. He would then ask me questions like, “What about this? What about that? Why aren’t you doing this? Why are you doing that?” He asked those questions because he’s a fan. It’s one thing to have someone that has the financial means or the notoriety and who wants to be involved in the sport, but to have a person that is also a fan of it… That’s what is so valuable.
Q: This is also all very good for Toyota and TRD, isn’t it?
DH: It is. They have said for a while now that they wish to have more cars on the racetrack. We are the minority when it comes to how many cars there are on the racetrack. Toyota has always been of the opinion that, “We’re going to do it right. We’re not going to put cars out there just to have more cars. We’re going to make sure it is the right situation for us.”
When Toyota came to me and asked if I’d be interested in ownership, I was very, very flattered because there are a lot of other Toyota teams out there that they could have moved up, but they believed in my vision and in my passion. Without a top tier manufacturer you are not going to be a top tier team. Luckily, we have people like Toyota behind us.
Q: It certainly seemed like you guys were adamant about securing the services of Kurt Busch for 2022 and beyond.
DH: Kurt was absolutely necessary. I do not believe we would be two cars if I could not get Kurt. Beyond anything else, what I did first is I vetted Kurt. I’ve been on the racetrack with Kurt my whole career, right? I know how he races. I want to hear how he was from a teammate standpoint, so I went to lunch with a lot of his old teammates and they all said one thing: “Get Kurt. He is by far the best teammate. He will help your organization. He is the person to go get.” For me, that was all I needed to know. Everyone was over the moon about him. I didn’t realize it until I started working with him a little bit at the very first test in Charlotte. I was like, “I knew he was good, but I didn’t know he was this good.” We’re definitely in that honeymoon phase where it is like, “Man, this guy is going to take us to the next level.”