NASCAR: Bubba Wallace earns first Cup Series victory at Talladega

Wallace earned a historic triumph when rain brought an early end to the middle portion of the NASCAR Cup Series’ quarterfinal playoff round.

Bubba Wallace disrupted the NASCAR Cup Series playoff picture in historic fashion on Monday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway’s YellaWood 500.

As the leader when NASCAR called the race due to inclement weather at lap 117 of 188, Wallace earned the first win of his Cup Series career. He becomes the first African-American driver to win an event at NASCAR’s premier level since the late Wendell Scott in 1963. Wallace, four days away from his 28th birthday, also secured the first win for the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota. The new team is owned and operated by Wallace’s fellow Cup competitor Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan.

Rain disrupted the Cup Series postseason proceedings, pushing a Sunday event to Monday. The precipitation refused to let up, originally causing an 18-minute delay at lap 74. Once the race reached its midway point (lap 94), it became an official event.

After reaching the landmark under threatening skies, drivers knew that the race could be stopped at any point. Wallace took the lead from Kurt Busch at lap 113 and led what became the last five laps of the race. The event never went green again after a multi-car wreck took out William Byron, Matt DiBenedetto, and Ryan Preece. An ill-fated attempt to dry the track was made, but the weather eventually became too much to bear, leading NASCAR to call a lid on the race weekend.

Wallace’s historic triumph completed a trifecta of first-time winners at Talladega over the past three days, as Tate Fogelman and Brandon Brown each earned their respective first wins in the Camping World Truck and Xfinity circuits.

Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, and Christopher Bell rounded out the top five. Points leader Kyle Larson was relegated to a 37th-place finish after his car was damaged in Justin Allgaier’s spin at lap 56, shortly before Chris Buescher took home the first and only stage win.

Bubba’s Big One

One could’ve said that Wallace earning his first Cup Series victory at Talladega was far too cinematic to ever come true. Not only is he a Mobile native but Talladega was the site of last summer’s show of driver solidarity after a rope fashioned into what was originally construed as a noose was found in the garage area. While an FBI investigation determined that there was no hate crime, drivers nonetheless stood alongside Wallace, pushing his car to the front of the starting line during pre-race ceremonies. 

Wallace, however, foresaw a fruitful visit to the superspeedway after promising results both there and Daytona. He led 16 laps during April’s visit to Talladega and wound up in the runner-up spot at Daytona’s regular season finale in August.

“I was sitting there reading over our notes, looking at our previous race here in the spring. I was like, man, our first stage average was pretty damn good,” Wallace recalled. I think we were like fourth on average. After that, we were like 15th to 20th second and in the third stage we ended up I think 18th or so.”

“It made me think about Daytona. We led some laps in Daytona in the summer, even at the 500. We lead some races early on, then kind of survived and get a good finish…For some reason, I had a feeling we were going to win. This was on Friday. I was like, we’re going to go win. (My wife) Amanda said we were going to win. I had a buddy of mine, Mamba, I told him I’m going to go out and win. I got it documented.”

Wallace went head-to-head with Kurt Busch, who will join him at 23XI next season in the No. 45 Toyota, and his team owner trying to work with one of his own teammates. With Hamlin’s semifinal status assured thanks to a win at Las Vegas last weekend, his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was pushing the No. 20 Camry of Christopher Bell to the lead. Bell could’ve likewise earned a ticket to the semifinals with a win, which would’ve been his first since the second event of the season at the Daytona road course in February.

Though Hamlin missed out on a JGR jackpot (Bell sits 27 points out of the final transfer spot), he was proud of what Wallace was able to accomplish, saying that watching the No. 23 team earn the victory was like “watching your kid succeed at whatever they’re doing”. Hamlin was pleased with the way Wallace applied lessons learned at prior visits to Talladega and Daytona.

“He made some big changes from Daytona (in February) and Talladega (in April) to Daytona (in August). I mentioned to him this week,” Hamlin, the eventual seventh-place finisher, said. I’ve just seen a transition with him, his willingness to take in information and apply it. I think this is not going to be the last time you’re going to be hearing about his name on a superspeedway. He’s very gifted at them. He has very, very good instincts.”

Shake Your Bootie

Monday marked not only Wallace’s first win in his Cup Series career but it was marked first such triumph for his crew chief Robert “Bootie” Barker.

Barker had not visited victory lane since 2003 while overseeing the endeavors of another No. 23 car, that of Scott Wimmer’s at Bill Davis Racing. The pair won four races en route to a third-place finish in the Busch (now Xfinity) Series standings the year prior, but Barker, despite developing a strong reputation across the sport, was still seeking his first win in 483 Cup Series starts. Barker originally joined 23XI in a behind-the-scenes role but was asked to return to the pit box three races ago, replacing Mike Wheeler (now 23XI’s Director of Race Competition). Barker’s last work as a crew chief came in 2018 with Riley Herbst’s ARCA team.

Working with Wallace required little reconditioning for Barker, who was familiar with his new driver. Barker was attracted to the sheer number of resources available to him at 23XI…and that included its original driver.

“I enjoy the situation I’m in. I enjoy working with Bubba. I feel like he has a lot of upside (and) a lot of potential,” Barker said of Wallace. “My main focus was to make sure the team, the strength of the team, was brought to bear. In other words, I didn’t do anything to inhibit us, make no mistakes, put us in a position to succeed has been my main focus. I knew Bubba could get it done. I knew we had the stuff and the people to support him to knock it out.”

Though it wasn’t their first win, Wallace and Barker’s collaboration ended one of the more dubious, hidden losing streaks in NASCAR history. Primary sponsor McDonald’s, which first entered the sport in 1973, sent a car to victory lane for the first since Jimmy Spencer’s July 1994 triumph, also at Talladega.

Hendrick Horrors

23XI became the first team to win a Cup Series race in its debut season since Hendrick Motorsports, who has sent four representatives in the Round of 12. If anyone wanted the rains to stop, it was that cursed quartet, whose best finishing Chevrolet was Chase Elliott’s No. 9 in 18th.

Larson wound up four laps down in 37th after his No. 5 Chevrolet clipped Allgaier’s spinning No. 77, ruining his handling for the rest of the afternoon. His position only partly improved thanks to his teammate Alex Bowman dropping to 38th after he was involved in a hard wreck that also took out Tyler Reddick. Byron’s unfortunate involvement in DiBenedetto and Preece’s incident doomed him to 36th.

While Larson’s prior endeavors built him a solid cushion (his lead above the cutoff is down to 22 points but he’s second place behind only Hamlin), Byron (44 points back) and Bowman (52) are in undeniable must-win situations if they plan on keeping their championship dreams alive.

Up Next

The NASCAR Cup Series’ Round of 12 concludes next Sunday afternoon at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where the track’s famous “Roval” (part-oval, part-road course) will host the event that determines the eight-driver semifinal lineup (2 p.m. ET, NBC). Returning to the Roval is music to Elliott’s ears: the defending series champion has won each of the last two visits. Elliott is currently the last driver eligible for the semifinal round, as his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet leads its new rival, 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick, by eight points.

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Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: 23XI Racing

MJ is going from The Last Dance to his first NASCAR laps; what can we expect from his new venture with Bubba Wallace and Denny Hamlin?

2021 23XI Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Bubba Wallace 23 Mike Wheeler DoorDash/McDonald’s/Columbia/Dr. Pepper/Root Insurance

History

Michael Jordan’s exploits with one “Dream Team” have been well documented. He might have another one brewing in Mooresville, a half-hour drive from his current hardwood dominion in Charlotte.

After months of rumors, Jordan formally announced his NASCAR venture in September, bringing along the accomplished Denny Hamlin as a co-owner. Bubba Wallace will pilot a Toyota appropriately bearing the No. 23, Jordan’s number during his legendary NBA endeavors.

NASCAR’s efforts to better itself in the current American landscape, such as the banning of the Confederate flag at their events, drew Jordan to team ownership in the racing circuit. Wallace is one of the most prominent African-American drivers in NASCAR history and has been one of the most prominent athletic voices in calling for social change.

“The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting for me,” Jordan said on the team website. “Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

23XI (pronounced “twenty-three eleven”) made its unofficial debut during the Busch Clash exhibition on Tuesday night. With Wallace ineligible for the event, Ty Dillon drove the car to an 18th-place finish.

2020 in Review

Wallace’s activism worked alongside the best season of his Cup Series career. In his final year driving Richard Petty’s No. 43, Wallace more than doubled his career total with five top-ten finishes, including a fifth-place posting at Daytona last summer. His 22nd-place finish in the final standings was the best showing for the No. 43 since Aric Almirola came home 17th in 2015.

Wallace stated he often sets a goal at the start of the year to “not be a part of the headlines”. Obviously, circumstances forced to cast that quest aside.

“Every year I have that goal and I failed every year because there’s something that’s like, ‘Hey, I wanna, you know, not make any controversy.’ So something always happens whether it’s my doing or not, but it seems like it’s always my doing so,” Wallace said. Despite the active struggles, he believes the progress he created both on and off the track will lead to a brighter future on both a personal and circuit-wide level.

“I think we put NASCAR on the map in a lot of new areas with a lot of new fans looking to tune in this year, which is great. It’s important. It’s huge for all of us. We just need to keep the ball rolling.”

Meet the Driver

Bubba Wallace 

Experience: 4th full season
Career Cup Victories: 0
2020 finish: 22nd
Best standings finish: 22nd (2020)

As Wallace raised his voice beyond the track, his racing career has faced greater scrutiny. In an era where fans bemoan the idea that drivers have not “earned” their Cup Series rides, Wallace’s credentials cannot be questioned. He earned six victories at the Truck Series level and he was running fourth in the 2017 Xfinity Series circuit when his Roush Fenway Racing shut down due to sponsorship issues. He came home in the runner-up spot in his Daytona 500 debut a year later. Ideally, Wallace would be able to focus solely on his racing endeavors, but reality has reared its ugly head far too many times.

Despite the added scrutiny, Wallace is prepared to represent 23XI in a positive light. With the star power behind it, the team will undoubtedly be one of the most intriguing storylines for both diehard and casual fans alike. The ultimate judgment of the team will undoubtedly come through Wallace’s results, a challenge he’s more than happy to accept.

“I think I look at the races that we had driving the 43, the races where we were running up front and competing. We were strong,” I look at Indy two years ago and even last year, I know how to race against those guys. Do they expect me to be up there? No. And do they race me differently because of it? Yes. I think that’s the biggest thing that’s going to change for other drivers. It’s going to, hopefully, it’s like, ‘Okay, this kid, this guy, whatever, they call me, whatever, knows what he’s doing up here. And so we have to race him a little bit different.’

“I’m not expecting it to be a cake walk at all. We’re there to race and race hard.”

Outlook

With new fans, with big names comes undoubtedly high expectations. It’d be unfortunate, for instance, to see 23XI go the way of Hall of Fame Racing, a short-lived venture for Dallas Cowboys passing legends Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. But, fortunately for 23XI, it’s not like they’re starting entirely from scratch. They’re operating in the former shops of defunct Germain Racing (a mid-budget team that fielded the No. 13 car for over a decade) and are working with a technical alliance with Hamlin’s current employers at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Wallace himself admitted that trying to win every single race is an unrealistic goal, though he hinted that he’s often set landmarks at two wins in a season. He did end up creating a reliable barometer while meeting with the media prior to arriving at Daytona.

“Do I expect to jump in and win right off the bat? No, not at all. I know the sport. If it was that easy, a lot of people would be doing it, but it’s not that easy,” Wallace said. “We start to build a resume at Daytona and build off that and continue to get better for our team. It’s going to take a couple of races, just like any new team will to get everything underneath us and make sure like, ‘Oh, we missed that last week.’ Let’s make sure we don’t do that and prepare for the next and build on that. Then once we get going and get a couple of races under our belts, then we can really start to pinpoint our weaknesses or our strong points and build off those and grow from those and learn from everything.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Ty Dillon earns Gaunt Brothers’ No. 96 for Daytona

Dillon will join his younger brother Austin at NASCAR’s premier event, piloting the No. 96 Toyota for Gaunt Brothers Racing.

The Daytona 500 will continue to get a double dose of Dillon.

Toyota Racing Development and Gaunt Brothers Racing announced that Ty Dillon will pilot the latter’s No. 96 Camry at the 2021 Daytona 500 on February 14 (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox). Bass Pro Shops and Black Rife Coffee will provide sponsorship. Dillon, 28, is the younger brother of 2018 Daytona 500 winner Austin and grandson of championship team owner Richard Childress.

“Gaunt Brothers Racing has given me a great opportunity to compete in the Daytona 500 and I couldn’t be happier,” Ty Dillon said in a Toyota-issued statement. “I love superspeedway races and the Daytona 500 is the biggest of them all. Toyota has certainly proven itself in our sport and in the Daytona 500. I’m looking forward to racing with them and reuniting with Bass Pro Shops and Black Rifle Coffee Company.”

Dillon has spent the past four seasons driving for the single-car squad at Germain Racing, which ceased operations at the end of the 2020 season. He piloted their No. 13 car to half of its dozen top-ten finishes, with his best posting being a third-place spot at last fall’s Talladega event. During the 2019 season, Dillon gave Germain its first two stage wins and added another this season.

The more recent tally earned him eligibility in the Busch Clash, the exhibition race held prior to the 500-mile main event. It’s possible Dillon could partake in the Clash with 23XI Racing, the newly formed team headed by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin, which is also under Toyota’s umbrella, but nothing has been solidified.

Dillon previously earned four wins on the NASCAR Xfinity and Truck series levels, posting a runner-up finish during the latter’s 2013 campaign. He has run well at Daytona’s Cup offerings, earning three top-ten finishes in his last five visits to the oval, including a fourth-place posting in the 400-mile summer event in 2019.

Gaunt Brothers Racing recently wrapped up its first full-time season with Daniel Suarez behind the wheel of their No. 96, with their best finishes being a pair of 18th-place postings at Bristol and Kansas. Suarez and GBR announced that they would part ways in September, with the former driving the No. 99 Chevrolet for Trackhouse Racing this season.

“The best way to get a good start to your season is to have a good finish in the Daytona 500,” said Marty Gaunt, president, Gaunt Brothers Racing in the statement “We’ve got a talented driver in Ty Dillon with a strong TRD engine plugged into the best equipment available. Together with Toyota, Bass Pro Shops and Black Rifle Coffee Company, we’re ready to compete and surprise some people.”

Dillon isn’t the only respected name of the circuit making his return to the Cup Series at Daytona. Not only is 2010 winner Jamie McMurray set to run the race in a Spire Motorsports machine, but Bob Pockrass of Fox Sports announced that Derrike Cope plans to run the event in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 15 Chevrolet. Cope, 62, was the upset winner of the 1990 edition. At 62, Cope would be the second oldest driver to ever compete in the Daytona 500, behind only Mark Thompson in 2018.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: 23XI Racing debuts first paint scheme for Daytona 500

NASCAR’s newest team debuted their new look on Thursday, one that channels the aesthetics of Michael Jordan’s glory days on the hardwood.

Cue up The Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius”, because No. 23 is ready to emerge in the starting lineup.

23XI Motorsports unveiled its first full paint scheme on Thursday morning, as the new team funded by NBA legend Michael Jordan and current NASCAR star Denny Hamlin nears its debut at the 2021 Daytona 500. Bubba Wallace will pilot the Toyota in its maiden voyage and beyond with sponsorship from DoorDash, a San Francisco-based food delivery service.

The car itself channels the red jerseys Jordan wore during the height of his NBA powers with the Chicago Bulls, complete with a black No. 23. Wallace and Hamlin each offered their praise on their social media accounts, the latter describing it as “Clean, not messy. Just like schemes used to be”.

The scheme will likely be seen at several points this season, but the team confirmed that it will first be seen at the season-opener at Daytona. Unlike some other new teams, the No. 23 is locked into the main events through purchasing a charter from defunct Germain Racing. Sponsorship deals are also in place with McDonald’s, Columbia Sportswear, Dr. Pepper, and Root Insurance. Schemes and appearances with those sponsors will be released at a future date.

23XI (pronounced “twenty-three eleven”) is the latest business endeavor of Jordan, who is also the principal owner and chairman of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. Jordan is the first Black principal owner of a NASCAR Cup Series race team since Hall of Famer Wendell Scott ran his own team over 13 seasons (1961-73), serving as the primary driver in that span. He enters the endeavor with Hamlin, the current driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and winner of 44 Cup Series races. Wallace, a six-time winner in the NASCAR Truck Series, is coming off a career-best season at the Cup level, earning five top-ten finishes and coming home 22nd in the final standings in his last season with Richard Petty Motorsports.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags