TALLADEGA, ALABAMA - JUNE 22: Bubba Wallace, driver of the #43 Victory Junction Chevrolet, gives a thumbs up prior to the NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on June 22, 2020 in Talladega, Alabama. A noose was found in the garage stall of NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace at Talladega Superspeedway a week after the organization banned the Confederate flag at its facilities. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
TALLADEGA, ALABAMA - JUNE 22: Bubba Wallace, driver of the #43 Victory Junction Chevrolet, gives a thumbs up prior to the NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on June 22, 2020 in Talladega, Alabama. A noose was found in the garage stall of NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace at Talladega Superspeedway a week after the organization banned the Confederate flag at its facilities. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Bubba Wallace: A Golden Opportunity

It’s worth remembering that Hamlin — regarded by many as NASCAR’s greatest driver without a Cup Series championship — entered 2021 chasing an unprecedented third straight Daytona 500 victory. Hamlin’s superspeedway racing résumé is up there with luminaries such as Dale Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Richard Petty and Jeff Gordon.

Even more than Wallace, Hamlin can’t make excuses if his Gibbs-owned No. 11 Toyota comes out of the gate struggling. It’s why his attention has to alternate between JGR — the race team he drives for — and 23XI, the team he co-owns.

“Once the season starts, my focus has to shift in most ways to my current race team, but I’m still going to be available (for 23XI Racing),” Hamlin said. “Once we get to Daytona, it’s up to Bubba on the track and up to ‘Wheels’ to build fast cars. I’m going to be a soundboard there with the association we have with Joe Gibbs Racing. I couldn’t emphasize enough to (Wallace) how important it’ll be to be in meetings with (Gibbs drivers) Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Christopher Bell.

“The process of building this team, it has been so fun for me to see it grow.”

It couldn’t grow without sponsors, so there’s plenty of incentive for Hamlin to remain heavily involved and for Wallace and Wheeler to get the job done on Sundays. Having a slew of companies wanting to plaster their name on Wallace’s car and fire suit, Hamlin said, makes developing a team budget much easier.

This set of sponsors and this race team, however, are linked in a much deeper way than most any other organization and any partner in motorsports.

Bubba Wallace sporting merchandise from the 23XI Racing team.

They’ve taken up the task of influencing positive social change, a concept and strategy that has never been high on NASCAR’s radar. Whether it should or shouldn’t be a priority for the sport can be discussed ad nauseam, but what’s not up for debate is this: Wallace, Hamlin, Jordan and their sponsors want to make as big of an impact off the track as on it.

In order to do so, they’ve got to be unafraid of starting the conversation.

“A lot has happened in the last year or so and it shows where we need to go as a generation and as a nation to not make it to where (social issues like racial injustice) are such an ‘Ooh, I don’t want to touch that’ (situation),” Wallace said. “These conversations need to be had. That’s the problem: People don’t want to talk about it if they think it doesn’t affect them.

“We should want to step up and make sure that our brothers and sisters are looked out for. That’s what Root, McDonald’s, Dr. Pepper, Columbia, DoorDash, everybody, that’s what they want. These (sponsorship) conversations were started with ‘How can we make this bigger off the race track?’”

For his part, Hamlin wants to be actively engaged in re-shaping NASCAR’s identity into one promoting greater inclusivity for drivers, crew members, media, fans and sponsors of all backgrounds.

“I have a lot of catching up to do (on social issues),” Hamlin said. “Bubba’s speaking on real-life times he’s had in his life, and maybe Michael as well. I can’t speak to that because I didn’t live that way and I didn’t have to go through the struggles they had to go through, so for me, it’s something I’ve had to educate myself on. To be supportive, I need to be educated and my process on that will continue for months.”

While Hamlin strikes a balance between boss and employee, Wallace will spend his year striking a balance between successful racing driver and successful social change advocate.

His plan?

“Doing the hands-on work to make sure we’re making a better impact and making this a better place to be for the next generation,” Wallace said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun and a lot of work, but I think that’s what we all need. We need to be motivated and pushed to work to do the right thing. It’s been really cool to see (sponsors) sticking with me and following me through this journey. It kind of came about during the chaotic months of (last) year. … Sponsors want a leader. They want someone who can be a role model to young people. They call it ‘sponsorships,’ but these are really more of a partnership. We’re working together.

“I can’t wait. I’m ready to get started right now.”

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