Bubba Wallace adopted a new motto as soon as the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1.
Wallace’s 2020 season was spent with Richard Petty Motorsports, the only NASCAR Cup Series team to employ the Mobile, Ala., native since his series debut in 2017. It was part success — a career-high five top-10 finishes and a 22nd-place finish in points — and part living hell.
Wallace is an outspoken individual, whether it’s about college football, his favorite metal bands or his advocacy for social change. Unafraid to take on any issues stemming from his being NASCAR’s only full-time African American driver, Wallace had to deal with a barrage of personal attacks at the race track and on social media last year, stemming from incidents of which he had no part.
He never shied away from the attention, even when it was overtly negative and it was undeserved.
Many in the NASCAR world stuck by Wallace through what was an extraordinary year by anyone’s standards. For Wallace, it was a bad year that gave way to a new beginning.
Basketball legend Michael Jordan decided last year that he wanted to jump — pun intended — back into motorsports by owning a NASCAR Cup Series team. A former motorcycle racing team owner among his many other pursuits, Jordan decided his entry into stock car racing was best suited as a partnership with longtime friend Denny Hamlin, one of NASCAR’s most successful active drivers.
Jordan wanted to make a splash. And, he wanted to do it with Bubba Wallace as his driver. Jordan, Hamlin and Wallace struck a deal last September.
Enter 23XI Racing, a team born out of the ashes of Germain Racing — at least in the sense that the team charter, many Germain team members and the Mooresville, N.C., race shop are now part of 23XI. Everything else is new.
It’s exactly what Wallace wanted. It’s also the boost his career needed after three years of being an underdog driver for Petty, a living legend who Wallace immensely respects but whose team, respectfully, doesn’t have Jordan’s budget.
“It’s definitely a breath of fresh air, having the opportunity I have in front of me,” Wallace said in a mid-December conversation with media. “Every day (since last season ended) I’ve been thinking about this opportunity.”
Wallace can boast of an accomplished crew chief in Mike Wheeler, who’ll call the shots for a No. 23 Toyota Camry receiving technical support from Joe Gibbs Racing, the championship-winning organization that has employed Hamlin for more than 15 years. High-profile sponsors, including McDonald’s, Dr. Pepper, Columbia Sportswear, DoorDash and Root Insurance, have signed on to support Wallace’s No. 23 Toyota.
Hopes are high.
“It’s really exciting to have the Class A partners we’re going to have,” Hamlin said. “This allows our team to run like a business and it helps us work to see how we can grow with the partners we have. We weren’t counting on any of the relationships that are currently with us. To be honest, they really stepped up in many ways. It’s a testament to the hard work people behind the scenes have been doing. This is a great step for us.”
23XI Racing will have all eyes on it as the season progresses.The team is expected to be competitive, naturally, because Jordan and Hamlin have legacies to uphold and Wallace is working hard to cultivate his own legacy.
“I want to compete for wins and show the true talents that I have and that this team has,” Wallace said. “This is the big break we’ve been waiting for in my camp. It’s a huge weight lifted off my shoulders, for sure. I’m beyond excited.”
So is Hamlin, whose hands-on approach as co-owner meant he had to be involved in everything from meeting with potential sponsors to deciding team shirt designs.
“Big teams, like we hope this one will be, get announced what, a year in advance? This one came about (last) September,” Hamlin said. “We had to make a checklist of what we needed to do to get a car on the race track. I’m working every day on this and as Steve (Lauletta, a team executive) will say, I’m part of most every decision that gets made.
“When building a race team, I can’t emphasize enough that this is from the ground up. I’m looking at catalogues for what the team’s going to wear, the shirts, the sweaters and team polos. There are decisions for everything. I wake up every morning and look forward to the emails I’ve got to respond to. This is truly a ground-up race team and we’re making huge strides.”
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