As NASCAR’s 2021 Cup Series lineup slowly comes into focus, the new team owned by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin is beginning to take shape. Several weeks ago, Jordan and Hamlin announced their organization would debut next season with driver Bubba Wallace. We also learned last week that the team, as previously speculated, will be called 23XI Racing (pronounced “twenty-three eleven”) and that Wallace will drive car No. 23. Additional details about the team’s personnel and sponsors have not been revealed. However, it is likely that excitement for 23XI Racing’s debut in the Daytona 500 next year will only grow through the offseason.
Fans should be prepared for the hype that is going to surround this team. In Jordan’s case, there is good reason to get excited about having him as a team owner. Still one of the most recognizable names in American sports, Jordan has the potential to introduce a whole new wave of fans to NASCAR, folks who might never have given stock car racing a chance without him. Having Hamlin as a partner will help Jordan get acquainted with the sport as well. Not every great driver turns out to be a great owner, but Hamlin has been around the sport long enough to know what challenges he will face in running a race team. Throw in Wallace, whose sphere of influence as a racer has exploded this season, and 23XI Racing will have a lot of eyes tilted its direction in 2021.
The problem is that for as much excitement as this team will generate, it is inevitable that the expectations placed on it will be too high. Anyone who expects 23XI Racing to be an instant contender is going to be disappointed. Realistically, the best-case scenario for 2021 is for the team to get one win. As long as it’s early enough in the season, it would be a victory that gets the No. 23 to the playoffs before a likely first-round elimination. Any accomplishments beyond that would be almost miraculous, while anything less, including a winless year, is much more likely.
Jordan and Hamlin may be beginning this team with the best of intentions, but we still don’t know if they can build a winning organization from the ground up. Hamlin’s connections in NASCAR and Jordan’s deep pockets will give them a fighting chance. However, money and connections don’t automatically build team chemistry. A big part of 23XI Racing’s short-term success will depend on how well the driver, crew and owners mesh. It is going to take some time, maybe a whole season, for everyone to figure out how to work together effectively.
Additionally, it is important to note Jordan and Hamlin are trying to create a team from scratch, which will make the process of team building even slower. Theirs is not the same trajectory that Tony Stewart was on when he became a part owner of Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009. That was a case of Stewart buying an ownership stake in Gene Haas’ already extant team. Yes, Stewart brought his skills as a driver and a lot of additional personnel who made the organization more successful. But Haas already had a shop and equipment when he and Stewart joined forces.
Even with that head start, most people expected Stewart and teammate Ryan Newman to struggle much more than they did in 2009. The fact that Stewart scored four wins and led the points standings for 13 weeks that year is one of those highly impressive streaks from NASCAR history that should get more credit than it does. And while Newman did not win a race that season, he did qualify for the Chase for the first time in four years. All things considered, Stewart-Haas Racing had a remarkable first season considering the organization was struggling to simply qualify the year before.
The same degree of success should not be expected for 23XI Racing. Stewart had already won multiple championships by the time he began his team ownership adventure, and Newman was a proven race winner. The same cannot be said for Wallace, who remains without a victory after three-plus years running the NASCAR Cup Series. But the good news for Wallace is that he is still young (27) with a potentially long career ahead of him. Moreover, he has shown the ability to win in NASCAR’s lower divisions when afforded the opportunity to race strong equipment. In the right situation, he will have a chance to erase that goose egg in the win column.
Up to this point, Wallace has been most successful in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. He has six wins in 48 starts there, most of those while racing with Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2014. In the Xfinity Series, he has made 85 starts with a best finish of second, one of six top-five results. While driving in NXS for Roush Fenway Racing in 2015 and 2016, Wallace earned good finishes most weeks but struggled to run up front and lead laps. His tenure with RFR came to an abrupt end in the middle of the 2017 season when his No. 6 team ran out of sponsorship.
All of Wallace’s Cup Series starts have come with Richard Petty Motorsports. In a little over three years’ worth of races, he has seldom run at the front of the pack and earned only one top five each season. However, Petty’s team has been struggling with funding for years; the organization has not won a race since 2014. Like a lot of drivers racing for underfunded teams, Wallace has not had an opportunity to show what he can truly accomplish in the Cup Series if provided with good equipment.
So, with all that said, what can really be expected of Wallace next year? Did he succeed in the Truck Series because of good equipment and shallower fields? Or, has toiling with RPM for three years at NASCAR’s toughest level masked his true capabilities? I don’t think putting Wallace in a better-funded car will immediately turn him into a week-in and week-out contender. But I do think that he will perform better and be able to win races over the next few years if Jordan and Hamlin are serious about building a stable team around him. While Wallace is not a newcomer to NASCAR anymore, it is fair to suggest we just don’t have an accurate picture of his skills. Racing for 23XI will go a long way to giving us the clearest picture yet.
The Jordan-Hamlin-Wallace combo will bring a lot of new eyes to NASCAR. It may have a great future long-term. But 2021 is going to be all about battling the inevitable learning curve. Realistically, fans should expect this team to place around 20th in points without a win or playoff appearance. That stat line will disappoint a lot of people, perhaps Jordan and Hamlin more than anyone. Yet it is important for the two of them and their fans to understand that 23XI Racing will not be defined by its first season. In the long run, their decision to field a team could be the beginning of a beautiful, powerful relationship for the sport.