Did You Notice? … Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan are teaming up to form a NASCAR Cup Series team in 2021? They’ll run Toyotas with Bubba Wallace as the driver, announcing the move and the purchase of Germain Racing’s charter on Monday night (Sept. 21).
It’s a move rumored for weeks, and its reality creates the biggest move of the sport’s Silly Season to date. Let’s sort through some analysis from all sides.
Toyota: Feels like the third time’s the charm for Toyota, doesn’t it? Since losing Michael Waltrip Racing after the 2015 season, this manufacturer has spent five years on the search for a second organization to pair with Joe Gibbs Racing long-term. It’s not that they don’t pour money into NASCAR; far from it. But Toyota’s motto in this sport has always been quality over quantity. They’re fine with only a handful of cars on the grid as long as all of them are competing for championships.
Twice now, Toyota’s paired with single-car organizations left closely aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing. The first, Furniture Row Racing, won the championship with Martin Truex Jr. in 2017 and became one of the great underdog success stories of motorsports this decade. But furniture store owner Barney Visser just didn’t have the deep financial pockets to keep up long-term. By 2018, he had stopped sponsoring his flagship car, the No. 78, with his own business and pulled out altogether when sponsor 5-Hour Energy bailed on the team. Truex was absorbed by JGR (along with Erik Jones the year before, when FRR briefly expanded to two cars) as they seemed all-too-happy to gobble up their “satellite.” After all, FRR’s Colorado home and independent streak via Canadian crew chief Cole Pearn had the No. 78 forging its own path and beating the hand that fed them (JGR) fairly consistently.
Next came Bob Leavine and Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95. First with Matt DiBenedetto, then Christopher Bell, LFR fought hard to squeak into the sport’s top tier. But the team has yet to win a race in two years, never made the NASCAR playoffs and crumbled under the economic weight of COVID-19. LFR sold to a team (Spire Motorsports) that hasn’t been competitive in its first two years of competing in Cup. The sale shows how large the investors need to be for a virus that’s causing the sports world to lose money hand over fist.
Enter Jordan. A net worth of $1.6 billion makes him the richest NASCAR owner this side of Roger Penske. Investing money in the race team to win, perhaps with no intention of earning it back, won’t be a problem whatsoever. He also brings a smorgasbord of connections from his time in the NBA, along with Fortune 500 companies like Nike that NASCAR’s been desperate to court. Multi-car operations are what win championships over the long-term, and this team could expand at a moment’s notice.
Add in Denny Hamlin to the deal and Toyota has its own Tony Stewart-Gene Haas pairing to work with for years to come. Speaking of….
Denny Hamlin: Think about how quickly Hamlin’s life has turned around. At the end of 2018, he lost good friend and crew chief Michael Wheeler from JGR after a winless season. At age 38, he seemed most vulnerable at JGR with Bell predestined to make his way to Cup. A move to a different team, at the very least, was a distinct possibility.
Now, less than two years later? He’s won 12 races, 28% of his career victory total, including two straight Daytona 500s. The No. 11 team has gone from fourth-best at Joe Gibbs Racing to the top of the charts, making the Championship 4 last year and on pace to do so again. Now, his pairing with Jordan makes him the most powerful active driver in the garage, building a powerhouse organization from the ground up with a NBA legend and one of the sport’s most popular drivers.
You have to wonder, though, if the timing couldn’t be worse for Hamlin. He’s spent most of the year a championship favorite, with only Kevin Harvick matching him punch-for-punch. A monthlong stretch from Kansas Speedway in July through Dover International Speedway in mid-August saw him finish top two in five of six Cup races.
Then, rumors of the Jordan team popped up and Hamlin’s appeared off his game. The No. 11 team’s had just one top-five finish in the last five races and advanced through the Round of 16 without a single top-10 finish. How was Harvick during that same stretch? Three wins, including two in the postseason. His lead over Hamlin without a playoff reset would be a whopping 167 points.
Looking ahead, Harvick heads into the next two rounds almost guaranteed a spot in the championship finale. He could miss the race this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and still be guaranteed a spot above the cutline. It was already a tough act for Hamlin to follow, considering the season-ender at Phoenix Raceway is a place Harvick’s won a series-record nine times.
Feels like the pressure’s off Harvick, while Hamlin? He’ll be distracted even when he says the answer’s no. Wallace has been the most-followed Cup driver in 2020 through his pursuit of social justice off the track (and also one of the most polarizing figures). Add Jordan, Toyota and a plethora of sponsorship news? There’s no social distancing for Hamlin from here on out. And if he misses out on the title now, what happens in 2021? Hamlin’s contract is supposedly up at JGR and it would make sense, in theory, to move over to a team he owns. Are we talking even more distractions? And I’ll tell you this much; you can only beat/hold down teammate Kyle Busch for so long.
In the ultimate irony, this year could have been the best chance for Hamlin’s long-awaited title and by securing his long-term future, he could have killed those chances in the short-term.
Michael Jordan. As ESPN’s Ryan McGee wrote Tuesday, Jordan partnering with NASCAR isn’t a complete surprise. He’s always had a side interest in the sport, the friendship with Hamlin is over a decade old and he’s previously dabbled in AMA SuperBikes. If there was someone willing to take the chance on this sport, jumping on the bandwagon with NASCAR’s commitment to diversity, he was near the top of the list.
That said, actually getting Jordan is a major coup for a sport that, for years, has sought someone of Jordan’s stature and financial stability to come on board. Add in his annual commitment to social justice and it feels like the Wallace/Jordan brand is a match made in heaven. No question, this partnership is set to make millions off the racetrack no matter how successful they are on it.
It’s the on-track part, I think, where Jordan is going to have a test in patience and commitment. His 10-year ownership of the Charlotte Hornets in the NBA has yet to produce even a second-round playoff appearance. As successful as this man was on the court, one of the greatest athletes this country has ever seen, he’s yet to know how to reproduce that success off it.
Jordan’s going to have to learn another side of NASCAR from the ground up. And he’s going to need good mechanical knowledge around him as, unlike when Stewart bought into Stewart-Haas Racing, Hamlin’s going to be busy driving elsewhere on Sundays. Finding the right mix of personnel is crucial, especially considering the sky-high expectations surrounding this team right off the bat.
Bubba Wallace. For Wallace, this move is easily the best opportunity of his Cup career. The off-track buzz he’s created has already produced an influx of long-term sponsorship, reportedly upward of $20 million: DoorDash and the Cash App, among other companies. Jordan’s partnership and financial security takes that issue away from Wallace for the first time since arguably his days in NASCAR’s Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series (2014).
Now, the key is both managing and exceeding expectations. Let’s not forget, Wallace has just three top-five finishes in three seasons running in Cup. He’s never made the playoffs, never produced a top-20 points finish and led a grand total of 24 laps in 105 starts.
It’s a big jump to go from that to winning races and championship contention. But you’d have to think the first-year expectation of this team is playoffs or bust. Every step of the way, Wallace will be dealing with critics who think (unfairly) he’s only got this opportunity not because of talent but the color of his skin.
The pressure on the sport’s lone full-time African-American driver was already immense; now, it’s off the charts. Establishing a solid support system will be crucial considering his previous battles with mental health. Wallace has to roll with the punches and recognize one win is all it takes, almost certainly to make the 2021 playoffs regardless of consistency. Just achieving that alone would be monumental for both him and the sport after this transition.
To sum up, this quartet becomes one of the sport’s most anticipated entries since SHR back in 2009. That’s right; it’s been over a decade since a new team was capable of making this type of impact instantaneously. And for NASCAR, who has spent the year trumpeting their efforts on diversity and social justice, it’s an earthquake-level investment with major upside.
Final thought: who would have ever thought Hamlin and Wallace would team up like this after their feud in the 2018 Daytona 500? Accusing someone else of drug use never seemed to be the best way to find a marriage made in heaven, but hey, it’s 2020!
Did You Notice? … Quick hits while taking off….
- Seeing all the Silly Season news play out in recent days, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez have been on my mind. Both of them are NASCAR champions in lower series. Each of them were Toyota’s “next big thing” at one point rising up the ranks. But the manufacturer is dropping them like a rock after this season and both of them could end up the odd men out. Among the rides left available are shrinking: Hendrick Motorsports (No. 48), JTG Daugherty Racing (No. 37), Richard Petty Motorsports (No. 43), Go FAS Racing (No. 32), potentially the Gaunt Brothers (No. 96, parting ways with Suarez), plus Spire’s two entry’s. I can see a scenario where other drivers (Kyle Larson, Corey LaJoie, Ty Dillon, Chase Briscoe and Brandon Jones) fill those seats, leaving Jones/Suarez sitting on the sidelines. Those two may need to go form a support group with Daniel Hemric as 20-somethings left for dead long before patience should have run out.
- The last three Las Vegas Motor Speedway races have been won by Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. What a setup for the duo that, right now, seem destined to fight for the fourth spot at Phoenix with Chase Elliott while Harvick, Hamlin and Brad Keselowski slot in front of them. We’ll see. But it’s high time for either driver to get over the hump and make a statement in victory lane.