Bubba Wallace (left) and Denny Hamlin in victory lane at Talladega Superspeedway. (HHP/Harold Hinson Photo)
Bubba Wallace (left) and Denny Hamlin in victory lane at Talladega Superspeedway. (HHP/Harold Hinson Photo)

MARTIN: Winning In & Out Of The Cockpit

CONCORD, N.C. — When Dan Wheldon won the Indianapolis 500 in 2005, it was the first time Michael Andretti experienced victory lane at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Andretti never won the Indy 500 as a driver, despite being one of the fiercest racers of his era at the famed 2.5-mile oval. Andretti’s 2005 Indy victory came as a team owner.

He was asked that day which felt better, winning as a driver or a team owner. Andretti said the self-satisfaction that comes from driving a race car to victory can never be replaced but winning a major race as a team owner brings a different kind of satisfaction.

Sixteen years later, NASCAR Cup Series driver Denny Hamlin can relate to what Andretti said.

Hamlin is one of the most successful NASCAR drivers of his generation. Through mid-October, Hamlin had won 46 Cup Series races in a career that began in 2006.

The driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing has won NASCAR’s biggest race — the Daytona 500 — three times. 

This season, Hamlin became a NASCAR Cup Series team owner by joining forces with basketball legend Michael Jordan to form 23XI Racing with Bubba Wallace behind the wheel of the No. 23 Toyota. 

Jordan, who won six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls, predicted two wins in the team’s first NASCAR season. 

Hamlin, however, realized how difficult it is to win a Cup Series race, especially for a young driver trying to learn his way with a first-year team.

“I told him (Jordan) he was full of shit in that sense because it wasn’t realistic,” Hamlin said. “But certainly, we knew the superspeedways would be our best opportunity to win. To take advantage of your best opportunity is what I’m really proud of.

“Michael has super-high expectations. I’ve tempered those to a degree. But Michael is competitive and agrees you have to set a super lofty goal. 

“If you are never chasing for the stars, then what are you chasing?”

It all came together on Oct. 4 when Wallace won the rain-shortened Cup Series race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

It was Hamlin’s first victory as a team owner, the first for Jordan as a team owner and Wallace’s first Cup Series triumph. Wallace also became only the second African American to win a race in a Cup Series race. Virginia’s Wendell Scott won at Jacks­on­ville (Fla.) Speedway Park on Dec. 1, 1963. 

Buck Baker was flagged as the winner of the race, but after a scoring review Scott was declared the winner. Scott never received a trophy and he died at the age of 69 on Dec. 23, 1990. Fifty-eight years later, NASCAR presented a trophy to the Scott family.

By comparison, Wallace’s victory was widely celebrated as a positive step toward diversity in NASCAR. 

It also gave Hamlin the unique chance to celebrate his first NASCAR Cup Series win as a team owner.

“It was great publicity and a lot of outlets that don’t normally mention NASCAR,” Hamlin said. “We got some great attention from it.

“Everything connected the dots perfectly for us last week and overall, it was a huge win. It made me be self-reflective of when I win and how much I take it for granted,” Hamlin added. “A lot of times when I win a lot, it’s another win and let’s think about next week.”

Andretti won 42 Indy car races and the 1991 CART championship as a driver. Andretti owns the highly successful Andretti Autosport and has won the Indy 500 five times as an owner and accumulated four series championships.

“It’s so different winning as a team owner than as a driver,” Hamlin told SPEED SPORT. “It’s like watching your kids play a sport and succeeding. You are certainly happier for them than you ever were for yourself and any of your accomplishments.

“My job on the 11 car is to drive the car. I have one responsibility and when we succeed, I know I did my job well. 

“When you own a team and you are part of every little piece and part of it, you take pride in it because you succeeded on many different levels.”

The victory came less than 12 months after the team’s formation.

“To win a race 12 months later, I can’t emphasize how big it is for everybody involved,” Hamlin said. “The great part about it is, although the race was rain-shortened, it wasn’t strategy-shortened. He drove to the front and was out there when the caution fell. 

“It was a legitimate win in the sense that Bubba drove it to the front and made it happen.”

It also happened at Talladega, which had served as a flash point in Wallace’s life. After the racial turmoil and unrest that came in the summer of 2020, a garage door pull tied as a noose was found at Wallace’s garage stall. 

Although photos revealed that “noose” was at the previous year’s race when the stall was assigned to a different driver, it made national headlines.

Wallace received tremendous support from the NASCAR community prior to the June 22, 2020, GEICO 500 at the 2.66-mile track.

Fifteen months later, Wallace and Jordan became Cup Series winners at the site of so many important things that had happened during the summer of 2020.

“When you look back at it or take a couple days to reflect on it, you look at all the stars that aligned,” Hamlin said. “It’s hard to argue that some things are just meant to be.”

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