With his boss Michael Jordan watching from a Pocono Raceway skybox, Bubba Wallace wheeled his 23XI Racing Toyota Camry to fifth place on Sunday, registering the team’s first-ever top-5 and top-10 finish in the NASCAR Cup Series.
“We had a strategy and we stuck to it,” Wallace said postrace on Sunday. “Just proud of the effort, and got to keep going”.
That strategy involved riding out a classic fuel mileage race at Pocono on Sunday, being one of the few cars to make it to the finish line with fumes in the tank. Joe Gibbs Racing alliance teammate Kyle Busch came across the finish line first with less than a lap of gas and the car stuck in fourth gear to secure the victory.
“Good all-around weekend for the organization,” Wallace said. “[Busch has] been strong here at Pocono, [and] it’s good to see a Toyota in Victory Lane”.
With the invert from Saturday’s race at Pocono, Wallace started Sunday’s event in seventh place and came across the finish line fifth to end Stage 1. The 27-year-old dropped back to 17th at the end of Stage 2, however, the team’s fuel strategy enabled them to climb up to fifth by the end of the race.
“It’s so easy to get put in the hornet’s nest [at Pocono],” Wallace said. “I knew our car was good enough to be top-10, [but] I didn’t know it would come down to a nailbiter with fuel”.
Wallace earned 38 points in Sunday’s top-5 finish, putting him 20th in the standings with seven races remaining until the start of the playoffs. He sits just 54 points outside the top-16 of points, well within striking distance of the postseason grid. However, the only obstacle standing in Wallace’s way are three high-speed road courses on the schedule, including Road America this weekend.
“I’m excited [about Road America],” Wallace said. “It’s been six years [since I’ve been there], but it’s like riding a bike. [I’ve] been there on the TRD simulator, it’s been good. [I’ll] plug in some time next week and really get ready”.
Although Wallace and 23XI Racing are thrilled to check off a top-5 finish, the team is hungry for more.
“Hopefully we can get our No. 23 Toyota Camry to Victory Lane soon,” Wallace said. “Fifth is good, but it’s not great”.
After finishing second in both the Camping World Truck Series race and the Cup Series race on Saturday, Kyle Busch was finally able to turn his bad luck around, winning the Explore the Pocono Mountains 350 in the NASCAR Cup Series on Sunday.
“This is a really good place for us,” Busch said. “Our guys do a really good job of coming here with really fast stuff”.
However, this win was certainly no cakewalk for Busch and the No. 18 team. Sunday’s race turned into a typical Pocono fuel mileage race, as well as Busch having to deal with a broken transmission for the majority of the race.
“I was just rolling around under yellow, scrubbing my tires, getting ready for the restart, and it popped out of gear,” Busch detailed. “When we took the green on the restart, everything was fine, shifting into gears, getting into fourth was fine, and then I’m holding it down the backstretch and chaos ensued….. the next caution comes out, I go to hit the shifter to see what’s wrong with it, and it’s stuck. Like it’s welded in fourth gear”.
Busch made trips down pit road for his crew to try and fix it, however, the team was unable to get the car out of fourth gear. The No. 18 car was forced to lay back on restarts due to lack of acceleration, but the car’s overall speed propelled Busch up with the leaders.
After cycling through from his final pitstop, Busch sat in fourth place with eight laps to go. The leader at the time was the No. 2 car of Brad Keselowski, however, he was forced to pit early and surrender his lead.
“We ran a really good race, but didn’t have enough fuel to make it to the end,” Keselowski, the third-place finisher said. “They beat us on power and fuel mileage, so we have a lot of work to do to keep up with those guys”.
William Byron assumed Keselowski’s lead when Keselowski was forced to pit on lap 132. He maintained the lead until three laps remained when Byron ran out of fuel himself.
“The goal for half the run was to run hard and get everyone else to pit and [then] we’d have to pit for less time,” Byron said. “Sometimes it hurts to have a fast car because you burn more fuel”.
Byron made it to pit road on fumes and was able to get back on the track for a 12th place finish.
After Byron ran out of fuel, Denny Hamlin landed in the catbird seat. Hamlin remained the leader for just over a lap when he ran out of fuel with two laps to go. That set up Busch to take his second victory of the season and his fourth in his Cup Series career.
Overall, it was a much improved day for Toyota teams, as all four Gibbs cars showed speed and both Hamlin and Busch were in contention for both Cup Series races this weekend. Martin Truex Jr. led 19 laps on Sunday and Bubba Wallace registered his first top-5 with 23XI Racing, all while team owner Michael Jordan was in attendance.
“[Jordan] understands,” Wallace said. “He wants to win, but he knows what it’s going to take for us to get there. It’s more from me, more from the team, it’s a more group effort. He’s in the background watching it and enjoying it….we’ll just keep plugging away forward”.
Busch, Kyle Larson, Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, and Wallace completed the top-5. Saturday’s winner Alex Bowman notably finished in the top-10 with a 7th place finish.
Larson continues to lead the playoff standings, while Hamlin continues to lead in overall Cup Series points. The Cup Series is back in action next Sunday at Road America for the Jockey Made in America 250 Presented by Kwik Trip. That race will begin at 2:30 PM Eastern time on NBC.
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
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.”
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.”
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.
Monday morning, 23XI racing announced their founding five partners for Bubba Wallace and the No. 23 team for the 2021 season. DoorDash, Columbia Sportswear, and McDonald’s will continue to sponsor Wallace after sponsoring him at Richard Petty Motorsports. McDonald’s will also sponsor Chip Ganassi Racing cars in 2021.
In addition to the three returning sponsors, Dr Pepper and Root Insurance will join the No. 23 team, making the car fully funded for their inaugural season.
Wallace and team owner Denny Hamlin put out the following statements
“I’m pumped to get the season started. I wish Daytona was tomorrow. We’re heading in the right direction and we’ll be ready when we get to Daytona. As I’ve said before, this is an opportunity of a lifetime for me and there’s no more excuses. We want to go out and win and I know we’ll have everything we need each week to make that happen. To have great partners in DoorDash, McDonald’s, Columbia Sportswear, Dr Pepper and Root Insurance come on board and show their support of me and this team is really cool. I’m excited for what we can do on the track, but at the end of the day, these partnerships and relationships are so much more than that. It’s about how we use our platforms to be better humans and help create a positive change. It’s about what we do Monday through Friday outside of the firesuit and that’s a really special thing for me. Knowing I have their support and this team behind me makes me really excited for this season to see what we can accomplish together.” — Bubba Wallace
“Today is a big day for us at 23XI Racing. To be able to announce the addition of five founding partners who are willing to join us in our first year and who share in our beliefs and values is such a great feeling. We’ve certainly had to make things happen fast to build this new team, and I’m excited to welcome each one of these partners and to get to know them better. I’m fortunate that during my time at Joe Gibbs Racing I’ve been able to have a great mentor and see how Coach, as an owner, is able to service each partner. That’s new for me – learning the owner side while still on the driver side, but I’m in for the long haul and will continue this far beyond my driving years. I’m passionate about this sport and I’m excited to bring new partners to the table and bring back others who have been in our sport in the past.” — Denny Hamlin
When it comes to Silly Season, ESM has you covered with this updating list of offseason ride exchanges at the Cup Series level.
(This list will be updated)
No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (formerly No. 88)
IN: Kyle Larson OUT: Alex Bowman
Larson returns to NASCAR after his ousting from Chip Ganassi Racing over his use of a racist slur earlier this spring during an event on the iRacing platform. His efforts to rehabilitate since the incident were enough to satisfy both NASCAR (who will lift his indefinite suspension on January 1) and team owner Rick Hendrick, who has resurrected the No. 5 branding last used by Kasey Kahne in 2017. Previous occupants of the HMS No. 5 include Mark Martin, Kyle Busch, and Terry Labonte, who won the 1996 Cup Series championship in the car. The No. 88 identity will be retired after 13 seasons, it’s tenure represented by Bowman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Larson won six races over six full seasons at Ganassi, the most recent coming in 2019’s fall event at Dover.
No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet
IN: Corey LaJoie OUT: New Car
Having purchased Leavine Family Racing’s assets, the low-budget Spire is hoping to take a big step forward by adding a second car to their stable (also fielding the No. 77, whose full-season plans will be announced at a later date). The new driver will be LaJoie, who spent the past two seasons in GoFas Racing’s No. 32 (which will now run as a part-time team), earning three top-ten finishes.
No. 13 Germain Racing Chevrolet
IN: Team folding OUT: Ty Dillon
The midbudget team from Bob Germain had been racing at the Cup Series level since 2008. Success in the Cup Series proved elusive, but the team earned a pair of Truck Series titles with Todd Bodine behind the wheel (2006, 2010). The team was forced to shut down when longtime sponsorship partner GEICO opted not to renew their deal (though they will remain a NASCAR partner), shutting down the No. 13 machine. Dillon’s future remains uncertain, as he hopes to continue racing at the Cup level but would be open to a return to the Xfinity Series.
No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
IN: Chase Briscoe OUT: Clint Bowyer
Bowyer’s retirement and subsequent transfer to the Fox Sports booth opened the door for Briscoe, who won 11 races at the Xfinity Series level (including a series-best nine this past season). It’s a dream come true for a Tony Stewart fan like Briscoe as he will occupy the car in which team owner Stewart won his third and final Cup title in 2011. Bowyer had operated the No. 14 car for four seasons, reaching the playoffs in each of the final three.
No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
IN: Christopher Bell OUT: Erik Jones
After starring for Gibbs at the Xfinity level (15 wins over two full seasons), it seemed inevitable that Bell would be racing for the Super Bowl-winning coach at the Cup level sooner or later. He got his feet wet in the premier series with his rookie campaign at the smaller, Gibbs-affiliated Leavine Family Racing, posting respectable results (16 finishes in the top 20, first top 20 standings finish for LFR). Jones failed to live up to the reputation pushed ahead by No. 20 predecessors Stewart and Joey Logano, missing out on the playoffs entirely this season.
No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota
IN: Bubba Wallace OUT: New Team
All eyes will be on this new endeavor from Wallace, Michael Jordan, and Denny Hamlin. The debut vehicle will bear the famous numerals that Jordan wore during a majority of his NBA days. Championship figures from other sports have entered into NASCAR endeavors before and there have been more misses than hits. For every Joe Gibbs Racing, there are multiple Hall of Fame Racings (headed by former Dallas Cowboys champions Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach). But Jordan’s acumen and resources…not to mention Wallace’s skills that were quite respectable for his equipment over at Richard Petty Motorsports…should certainly set this team apart from other start-ups. The team has secured a charter from the aforementioned Germain.
No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
IN: Ross Chastain OUT: Matt Kenseth
Kenseth was never meant to be a permanent solution in the No. 42 after Larson’s firing, and that was confirmed with Kenseth more or less announcing a third retirement, calling his full-time racing days “over” earlier this week. Chastain was a strong, veteran solution with strong postings with equipment that wasn’t always the best at both the Xfinity and Truck levels. He made a three-race cameo in Ganassi’s Xfinity program (ironically also driving a car number 42) back in 2018, winning a visit to Las Vegas.
No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet
IN: Erik Jones OUT: Bubba Wallace
Jones will take over the seat that Wallace left behind at RPM. Despite being dealt his walking papers from Gibbs, Jones, the 2015 Truck Series champion, managing to score four finishes in the top five over the ten playoff races. He has two wins at the Cup level, the last being the 2019 Darlington race. RPM is seeking their first win since 2014, when Aric Almirola drove the iconic No. 43 to victory lane.
No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
IN: Alex Bowman OUT: Jimmie Johnson
For months, the 2021 status of the iconic No. 48 was in question with the retirement of seven-time Cup champion Johnson looming large over the entire season. Hendrick went in-house for the succession, calling up Bowman, the former bearer of the No. 88. Bowman made a strong case to take over Johnson’s seat with his strongest season to date. He finished a career-best sixth in the final standings and finished no worse than 16th over the final dozen races of the year, a stretch that included nine postings in the top ten.
No. 78 Live Fast Motorsports Ford
IN: BJ McLeod OUT: New Team
McLeod will serve as the has entered into a new team endeavor with Matt Tifft, who returns to NASCAR after a seizure indefinitely ended his racing career in 2018. The team has obtained its charger from Go Fas Racing, whose No. 32 will be reduced to a part-time schedule next year. McLeod has run his vehicles at several NASCAR levels since 2016.
No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota
IN: Team folding OUT: Christopher Bell
A technical alliance with Joe Gibbs and a strong performance from Bell (his 20th-place in the standings being the best in team history) wasn’t enough to save LFR. Previous drivers of the No. 95 include Kasey Kahne and Matt DiBenedetto. LFR’s assets have since been sold to Spire Motorsports, which is seeing an expanded role in the Cup for 2021 (their full plans have yet to be announced).
No. 99 Trackhouse Chevrolet
IN: Daniel Suarez OUT: New Team
Suarez, the 2016 Xfinity Series champion and formerly of both Gibbs and Stewart-Haas, joins with this new team after a year with the No. 96 of Gaunt Brothers Racing (whose 2021 plans have yet to be revealed). The endeavor is headed by former road course ringer and current racing businessman Josh Wise and former Dale Earnhardt Inc. executive Ty Norris.
In a year of chaos, NASCAR’s stability and adaptation brought hope and joy to the nation. Maybe we can all take a lesson from the circuit.
Enough has been written about American chaos, lunacy, childishness, violence, depravity, callousness, and heartbreak in the year 2020.
Yet, with circa 50 days remaining in this year of struggle and reckoning, there’s still time to come out clean on the other side. Through perseverance, talent, and faith, the American people still have time to emerge with a sense of betterment, if only on a personal level. The country has struggled at times to live up to the principles it was founded on, those of freedom and opportunity. But there are still individual cases throughout the land that showcase these American ideals. After all, it’s more often than not no one in the White House that makes America great…it’s We the People.
Cruel as life can be, it does have the decency to imitate the art of these ideals and virtues, often doing so through the canvas of sports. After all, that’s what made the 2020 NASCAR season so intriguing and a beacon of hope in a chaotic landscape.
Last Sunday marked the end of the 2020 circuit, the proceedings wrapping with Chase Elliott, the modern face of NASCAR, hoisting the Bill France Cup in the deserts just outside of Phoenix to commemorate his first championship title in the premier Cup Series. Elliott’s dominance of the 500-mile finale made the final laps of the campaign a tad anticlimactic…his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet beating Brad Keselowski by a 2.74-second margin…but everything else was consistent with a storybook ending.
The Season Finale 500, NASCAR’s championship race, was held on its originally scheduled date at its originally scheduled location. Even a few loyal, socially distanced fans were welcomed into the facility to witness Elliott’s dominance. The event was the 36th points event of the Cup Series season…no different from the number attached to a full schedule in a year unhindered by masks and six feet.
“The year has been, in short, I would say extraordinary, although I could probably use 15 or 20 other words to try to get to something,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said prior to the Cup finale at Phoenix. “It’s just unprecedented in the history of our country, in the history of sports, and certainly in the history of our sport. I would suggest this is the single most difficult year that we’ve faced as a sport.”
“But through it all this industry…I believe this industry does adversity better than any sport.If you think about it, we’re at a competitive disadvantage. We don’t own ourselves.We’re not franchised, right?We have independent contractors who come to race as one. What we have done during this global pandemic is I think nothing short of remarkable.We can’t do what we did as a sport without coming together.”
NASCAR was not immune to the world getting turned upside down at the onset of the ongoing health crisis. The circuit ran four races before shutdown and quarantine protocols across the country forced them to take an indefinite break after, ironically, the first race at Phoenix Raceway, the FanShield 500 on March 8. Working with their business partners and local governments, the series was able to negotiate a return on May 17, with proceedings moving to a doubleheader at the historic Darlington Raceway.
Like the rest of the country, drivers and crews had to make do with the temporary new surroundings. One of the most accessible sports from a spectator standpoint endured empty stands and empty garages. The typical hustle and bustle of fans enjoying not just a day, but a whole weekend, at the track, and the colorful and lively sponsor hospitality tents had all vanished.
NASCAR was stripped down to almost bare essentials, with a weekend’s work confined to mere hours after practice and qualifying were wiped out. With the starting lineup determined by random order and later a mathematical formula that prioritized those ahead in the standings, drivers essentially went from their streetcars to their racecars on the day of the event. Further draining perhaps emerged from the potential of running three races over the span of seven days, as weekday events were added to the schedule in an effort to get the full docket in.
Other efforts to not only complete every race but include the variety of different tracks that NASCAR has become known for were made as well. With road course events at Sonoma and New York State’s Watkins Glen International unable to be salvaged, the Cup Series moved their proceedings to a strange land in familiar territory: the road course at Daytona International Speedway. No NASCAR career is complete without running Daytona at least once, but the road course was unchartered ground. Yet, the sport pushed through, with Elliott winning a relatively clean maiden race back in August.
“If you told us we were going to a road course and never have practice and we’re just going to line up and race, and you told us that in January or February, we’d think you were nuts, that would never happen,” Joey Logano, championship finalist and the driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, said of 2020. “We have to have a test session, we have to have a bunch of practice. It’s not possible. (But) we did it, and it was a great race, right, down in Daytona.”
As American sports adjusted to new, makeshift surroundings, NASCAR was able to provide a sense of normalcy to the landscape. While motorsports perhaps provide the best opportunity to social distance, they’re impossible to stage in a bubble that worked so well for the NHL, NBA, WNBA, NWSL, and several others. The health crisis would only add further chaos to the situation, with the necessary travel only increasing the potential for positive COVID-19 tests.
But NASCAR was able to navigate the situation fairly well, as drivers and crews alike adhered to protocols. From a participants’ standpoint, only two drivers (Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon) missed time due to a positive test and each was cleared to return to the track after one absence. With the exception of the ongoing NFL season, NASCAR is the only major North American sport that managed to complete a full-time, regularly scheduled season. Despite some venue shifts, every one of the 36 Cup Series races was completed.
“I would suggest that our sport did as well or better than other sports did with respect to how our protocols worked with our competitors. We have a significant number of competitors, not just our drivers but our crews, our officials, the safety workers,” Phelps said of the safety and health protocols. “When we shut down heading into Atlanta, we had no idea when we were going to get back to racing.It was our goal, and a stated goal, that we were going to run all races.Tomorrow when we crown a champion in our Cup Series, we will have run all our races.We did it through ways that frankly probably we didn’t think we could do, right? A bunch of midweek races. Three doubleheaders.No practice and qualifying. Things that were kind of significant in bedrock that we do, right?You come to the racetrack, you’re here for three days, you practice, you qualify, you’re on your way, right?”
“For us to be the first sport back without fans initially on May 17 in Darlington, to the first sport back with fans, I think it’s an extraordinary achievement.”
Even though he’s set to turn merely 25 in two weeks, Chase Elliott has perhaps spent more years around a racetrack than some drivers have been alive. That’s what happens when your dad is Awesome Bill From Dawsonville. In layman’s terms, Bill Elliott was a NASCAR driver hailing from Dawsonville, GA, and an accomplished racer in his own right. Bill Elliott won 44 Cup Series races, the 1988 championship, and 16 Most Popular Driver Awards.
NASCAR royalty appears to follow the younger Elliott wherever he goes. In addition to his parental ties, a good portion of Elliott’s NASCAR endeavors have come under the Hendrick Motorsports banner. Owned by Rick Hendrick, the team is more or less NASCAR’s answer to the Yankees, boasting 17 championships at the primary national levels, including 13 in Cup. Elliott also ran a pair of seasons in the NASCAR Nationwide/Xfinity Series with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team (winning the 2014 title) before making his transition to the premier league. When the time came, Elliott originally took over the No. 24 Chevrolet branding that the legendary Jeff Gordon left behind upon his retirement. That team made itself over to represent the No. 9 after William Byron earned a promotion of his own. Elliott had run that numeral in the minors and his father also ran it for the majority of his full-time Cup Series career. There, he has spent the past five seasons under the tutelage of teammate Jimmie Johnson, one of two seven-time Cup champions (alongside Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt). In the commemoration of Johnson’s retirement from fulltime-time, Elliott’s “throwback” paint scheme at Darlington’s Labor Day weekend resembled the car the No. 48 drove to the 2009 title. His Phoenix vehicle bore a No. 9 dyed in the color of bright yellow digits that Johnson repped for nearly two decades.
But it’s almost a shame that Elliott’s story can’t be told without such prominent names attached to it, even if his support system was partly why his story can be so vital on a national landscape. The Dawsonville native and die-hard Atlanta Braves fan has built a sizable racing resume throughout his early 20s. His name already peppers the NASCAR record books as the youngest winner at several tracks on the circuit. He’s developed a reputation as a road course warrior, winning the last four races at such tracks (a mark bested only by Gordon). At NASCAR’s de facto victory lap at Bristol Motor Speedway’s All-Star Race in July (run in front of 30,000 fans), Elliott earned the literal million-dollar victory with a dominant effort. He’s even catching up with his father and former boss in Most Popular Driver Awards, earning the last two after Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement ended his reign at 15.
Yet, claims of nepotism, the belief that Elliott wouldn’t have the ride he had without his name persisted. Critics pointed no further than his lack of success in the NASCAR postseason’s semifinal segment, a Round of 8 curse that manifested itself through bad luck and factors that were often beyond his control. That trend showed early at several points this season. Late contact with Kyle Busch denied him a chance at victory at the Darlington reopener. An ill-advised decision to come to pit road during a late caution cost him victory at the 600-mile crown jewel at Charlotte. The Johnson-inspired car failed to capture victory at the late summer return to Darlington, making contact with Martin Truex Jr. in a furious battle for the lead. But Elliott still managed to create a strong season to the tune of wins at the Daytona/Charlotte hybrid tracks and another Charlotte win days after the Coca-Cola 600 miscue.
But the curse…the swing of eight, one could call it…nearly manifested itself yet again in the dying stages of the season. A pit road mishap in the middle event of the three-race segment at Texas Motor Speedway relegated him to a 20th-place finish at the worse possible time. It more or less put Elliott in a must-win situation, the standings too far spaced to hope to make it in through points.
Elliott would then go on to dominate the penultimate race of the season at Martinsville Speedway, a short track known for its chaos. But disaster nearly manifested with less than 100 laps to go. He was able to star as the first car with four fresh tires to leave, but NASCAR was set to send him to the rear of the field because they determined jackman T.J. Semke left the wall too early, necessitating a penalty. The No. 9 team would vehemently argue the penalty, reasoning that Semke made it back to the wall in time to escape without a foul. NASCAR reviewed the incident and determined that was indeed the case. Elliott got back on track and passed Truex Jr. to capture the necessary victory.
“This is a moment that we haven’t experienced together,” Elliott said after that race. “You just don’t know those emotions until you go through it, are able to experience it,” Elliott said after the Martinsville victory. “We obviously all put a lot of effort in to try to do our jobs to the best of our ability. T.J. made a mistake. He was heads up enough to go back and fix it, not to have to go to the back of the field. If he hadn’t have done that, I don’t think we’d have been able to win. There just wasn’t enough time left. That’s super heads up.”
“It absolutely is a team sport,” he continued. “We can’t do it on our own. I can’t do it by myself. No one on our team can do it alone. We recognize that. Feel like we have a great group, a group that’s capable of winning. I thought we showed that and proved that tonight.”
The curse, it appeared, felt like it hadn’t fully had its way with Elliott just yet, though. Going into the Phoenix finale, a failure of prerace inspection sent Elliott to the rear of the field to start the race. This time, there was no arguing the penalty, and Elliott indeed had to move things back to the rear of the field.
Between his youth and prerace misfortune, Elliott had a built-in excuse for emerging from his first final four without a trophy. Instead, the driver of the No. 9 rolled up his sleeves and smiled…far more worried about his losing the pit box closest to the exit than having no one in his rearview mirror at the start of the race.
“Starting position is great and all, whatever, I feel like from that standpoint, but that pit pick is huge,” Elliott remarked. “That starting position stays with you. It could potentially be done when you leave Turn 2, but that pit pick stays with you until the race is over.”
“The first thing that really kind of stuck in my head was, Dang, are we going to lose that, too? And once I realized we didn’t, I’m like, Okay, if we have our car good and our balance is right, who cares if you start at the back for the race? 312 laps, you know. That’s no excuse to not get the job done if your car is good.”
One thing that NASCAR could not check for was extra nuggets of inspiration. Elliott said in the Phoenix lead-up that he didn’t truly believe in the concept of bulletin board material. Thus, being Chevrolet’s first championship finalist in four seasons didn’t expand the hypothetical speedometer on the No. 9 machine.
But Elliott did say a special boost was waiting for him before lowered his window net before the green flag: a message from Johnson, whose seventh and final title came in 2016, when he likewise had to go the length of the field to earn a championship. Shortly after Elliott ran and led the 312th and final lap of the race, he and Johnson met on track for a high-five from their cars, unable to remember what they were saying due to the noise generated by the pure ecstasy of victory and revving of their respective Hendrick engines. It wasn’t the first time Elliott and Johnson celebrated a debut victory together. After Elliott’s first Cup win at the 2018 Watkins Glen even came through careful fuel management, Johnson’s No. 48 pushed the bone-dry No. 9 back to the front of the grandstands at the start/finish, where the celebration could officially begin.
This time, it wasn’t a push that kept the celebration rolling…it was a hug. Elliott, Johnson, and Hendrick shared a group hug the second the former pair emerged from their cars. With a fifth-place finish, Johnson was the best finisher amongst the non-championship contenders…an honor that was enough for his daughter Evie to tell him that he was also “a winner”. The familial themes were the perfect way to come full circle. One of the most recognizable images of sports in 2020 remains the shot of Ryan Newman being led out of a hospital by his daughters Brooklyn and Ashlyn mere days after the driver of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford endured a horrifying, airborne accident at the end of the Daytona 500.
“The last text message I saw before the race was from Jimmie. And he said, The road to the top…I forget what he said,” Elliott said with a laugh about his final steps into the championship car. “He said something about the road to the top can have some twists in it. I hate you guys are having to start in the back, but you can get it done. That was the last thing I saw before the race.”
“He’s a hero of mine. I think he’ll go down as the greatest to ever do this mess. For that type of guy to be reaching out lending support and genuinely wanting you to do good, hell, what else can you ask for?”
A championship American endeavor completed through teamwork and perseverance? That’s the type of story that everyone in this nation, civilian and politician alike, needs to read in these trying times.
One can fully admit that sports fandom is not a matter of life or death, and they rightfully took a backseat on several occasions this year. Yet, the role they can have on one’s psyche cannot be denied…even if it comes through something as simple as letting the folks at home know what day it is.
For some, the reality of the pandemic truly took hold when, one-by-one, sports leagues on both the professional and amateur levels began to shut down. NASCAR held on longer than some of their counterparts, but eventually hit pause hours before a race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway was due to begin. Like many organizations, the shutdowns across the country stifled progress in a hopeful outlook. One of the biggest effects of the pause was the fact that NASCAR had to push back the debut of the “Next Gen” racecar by a year, as testing had to be shelved in the wake of lockdowns. The new car is now set to debut at the 2022 Daytona 500.
“What I would say is that on March 8th we were a sport that was coming back,” Phelps noted in reflection during his pre-race statements. “Our ratings had stabilized last year. Our attendance was going in the correct direction.”
After two weeks of lingering, waiting, NASCAR was the first sport to return to television screens…literally turning to television screens of sorts to get things rolling. On March 22, drivers took the virtual confines of Homestead-Miami Speedway, running a shortened version of the event that was meant to be held that weekend on the iRacing platform.
iRacing had long held a role in NASCAR. Some drivers partook in the program for fun, others opted to use it for testing purposes. This time, it was united in a cause of hope. A new, exciting addition to the NASCAR circuit was well-received by audiences. Through the platform, fans got to see the objects of their modern adoration do battle with iRacing virtuosos and legends of the past who came out of retirement to partake (i.e. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Bobby Labonte). The event at Homestead proved so popular that it became a new, temporary circuit of its own, the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. Lower-budget drivers, who previously accumulated strong hours on the platform got their time to shine. For example, Timmy Hill, driver of the No. 66 Toyota for microbudget squad MBM Motorsports, went to victory lane at a pixelated Texas with an expert bump-and-run on Byron. The series ended with a special event at a recreation of North Wilkesboro Speedway, a North Carolina short track that has fallen into disrepair since running its last NASCAR event in 1996.
Through these races, called by Fox’s lead broadcast team of Gordon and Mike Joy with a perfect blend of seriousness and snark, NASCAR was able to not only stay relevant and provide new content while other sports bided their time through replays of classic events, but to provide hope and assurance to their fans and sponsors. As they enjoyed the virtual proceedings, fans were allowed to sit back, relax, and pretend things were normal again, if only for a short while.
“What a wonderful thing that landed in a world of NASCAR and motorsports’ lap. It is almost like it was built and prepared for this pandemic,” Clint Bowyer said during the summer. “Without it, I don’t honestly know that NASCAR survives and are able to turn the switch back on after we did. Bridging that gap and keeping our sponsors in the limelight under ratings that are competitive with any sport was phenomenal for all of us in the world of motorsports and in particular NASCAR.”
Bowyer partook in the iRacing events and helped Joy and Gordon called the races on Fox. Formerly the driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, Bowyer announced late in the season that he would step away from racing to join the Fox Sports booth full-time. One thing that will always stand to him will be just how much the sport cares and provides for their fans.
“I enjoy it. I enjoy this sport. I love this sport. I am proud of this sport and proud to be a part of this sport,” Bowyer said. “It has always been fun for me over the years to sell this sport to the fans or whatever the case may be. Having that access to be able to reach a fan in a different way, over the years I have just gone out to the infield and interacted with fans and got to know them and tell our story.”
That love culminated on the weekend of May 17, when conditions were declared safe, though things were a bit different when resumption weekend began at Darlington. The weekend traditions of qualifying, practice, were eliminated. But it assured that there would be no asterisk whatsoever next to a championship title. In fact, one could argue that the lack of preparation, the aforementioned, immediate transition from streetcar to racecar, makes a 2020 championship even more special.
It’s partly why Kevin Harvick’s season will be long-remembered, even with no championship waiting at the end. The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford won an astonishing nine races, dominating the circuit until hard luck cut his championship trek short in the Round of 8. It may not have ended with a trophy hoist in victory lane, but nonetheless helped Harvick solidify himself as one of the more dominant drivers in the sport’s history.
The current health crisis has done major damage across the country for months, but another disaster has raged on for centuries: that of systemic racism. America has accomplished much since its founding, developing into a land of prosperity and opportunity, but our country’s promise of liberty and justice for all has gone by the wayside far, far too often.
Ideally, sports could be a realm where real world issues can truly be set aside, but such a luxury has been rendered no longer tolerable in 2020, as ignoring the ongoing reckoning with the dark portions of the past would be to deny the humanity of the athletes that entertain us. As professional and amateur sports alike have made their way back from their respective hiatuses, the biggest names have used their First Amendment right of free speech to advocate for change.
As the first sports to return to action eyes turned to NASCAR in the process, as no one could deny its status as a predominantly white sport. Its roots in the Southeast have caused a vocal minority of naive and immature critics to label the entire fanbase as racist and anti-intellectual. But problems with the sport’s diversity couldn’t be ignored, not only in the scale of the national picture but the narrower personal frame as well. Doing so would’ve been especially difficult when Kyle Larson, one of the sport’s up-and-coming talents, used a racist slur during an iRacing event streamed on Twitch. Larson was removed from his high-profile ride at Chip Ganassi Racing after the incident, replaced by retired Cup champion Matt Kenseth.
Larson’s firing was justified, but further incidents of injustice across the nation amplified voices of protestors, turning the attention to NASCAR, one of the few forms of recreation operating. It perhaps would’ve been easy for the circuit to sweep things under the rug, hope for the best, and keep things relegated to racetrack matters. Instead, NASCAR addressed things head-on, making their statement at a moment where most eyes would be watching: right before the start of the race.
Prior to the start of the rescheduled Atlanta event on June 7, Phelps paused the 40 starters at the start/finish line and addressed NASCAR..and the nation…directly.
“Our country is in pain and people are justifiably angry, demanding to be heard,” Phelps said in a radio message played over the race communication networks and the national TV broadcast. “The black community and all people of color have suffered in our country, and it has taken far too long for us to hear their demands for change. Our sport must do better. Our country must do better.”
“The time is now to listen, to understand, and to stand against racism and racial injustice.”
NASCAR’s stand was immediately put to the test. Three days after Phelps’ announcement, and hours before a weekday event at Martinsville Speedway, the governing body announced that displays of the Confederate battle flag would no longer be welcome at sanctioned events. The series’ southern roots led to close association with such a flag and many of its flyers claimed it was simply a display of southern pride. NASCAR had previously tried to distance itself from the display by offering a trade-in program that encouraged fans to display an American flag instead.
But this outright ban made it clear that a flag that stood for preserving the institution of slavery and literally cut itself off from the ideals and territory of the United States of America was no longer welcome at their events. With rare exception, drivers understood the flag’s departure.
“For some people, it has different meanings,” Tyler Reddick, rookie drivers of the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, acknowledged. “But for those that were affected by it and generations of families that have been through hardships, slavery, all sorts of things, racism, I just don’t feel like there’s a place for it. So, I’m glad to see NASCAR put their foot down and like ‘alright, we didn’t really like it at the track, but we’re not allowing it anymore’. It’s well beyond time and it’s kind of crazy to even think, whether its statues or whatever it is around our country, that we’ve kept these things up as long as we have, considering how much negative meaning that a lot of those statues and things we have around our country meant to people that have been affected by it the most.”
“We need to not allow that banner to be at the racetrack, personally. I don’t really care how you can justify what it means,” Corey LaJoie said in an exclusive interview with ESM. “I think, if anything, you can justify it as being insensitive to people it offends. This might not be a practical analogy, but if my brother is definitely allergic to peanuts and I love peanuts, I’m not going to eat peanuts in front of him, right? Just because it has the possibility to hurt him, physically. If there’s something that I consciously do to offend somebody emotionally, I wouldn’t choose to do that, even if I enjoy eating peanuts.”
“When it comes to supporting our sport, we need to have everybody feel welcome,” the driver of the No. 32 Go Fas Racing Ford. “No one should feel offended by anything, no signage, no opinions by anybody. Really, we’re one community trying to entertain people and that’s what we love and what show up 36 weekends a year to do. We don’t want to exclude anybody, we want everybody to feel welcome coming to the NASCAR track.”
The ultimate display, one of the most inspiring, unifying displays in all of sports came at one of the sport’s most prominent, most beloved Southern hubs: Talladega Superspeedway.
Talladega is known for its tight racing, rising tempers, and multi-car get-togethers known as “The Big One”. It seemed only appropriate that the first of two events at the longest track on the circuit came on June 21…the hottest and longest day of the year. But racing activities were overshadowed by an apparent incident, one where a rope tied into a noose was discovered in the garage stall of Bubba Wallace, the only African-American driver on the Cup Series circuit. NASCAR immediately called an investigation in cooperation with the FBI, who eventually determined that no hate crime was committed.
But there mere thought of a threat brought the forces of NASCAR unity and brotherhood out in full force.
Prior to the start of the GEICO 500, moved to a Monday, drivers and crews alike walked alongside Wallace’s No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet, pushing to the front of the field and stood alongside him during the national anthem and invocation. After prerace ceremonies were completed, each of Wallace’s competitors embraced him individually.
Alex Bowman was one of those drivers. He and Bowman had their prior shares of on-track confrontations, namely during last fall’s tilt at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course. Their battle came to a head on pit road when Wallace dumped a bottle of water on an exhausted Bowman at the end of the race.
But when the time came for the series to rally around Wallace, Bowman showed no hesitation whatsoever. He said that such unity was vital in the day and also praised Wallace for his own comments calling for justice and action against systemic racism.”
“I think there’s no secret, we’re not best friends, right? We’ve had our fair share of run-ins and the on-track stuff is just going to happen – tempers are going to flare and if you run into the same guy a couple of weeks in a row here and there, it’s not going to go great for your relationship,” the driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet said. “But that’s as a racecar driver and that’s on the race track. As a human being, I have a big appreciation for him pushing us all to be better, speaking up and us do the same. It really comes down to, on the race track, we’re probably not going to be friends. But as a person, I appreciate what he’s doing and just wanted to show my support for him.”
True to NASCAR form, the Talladega unity was capped by an incredible show, one that came down to the wire. Ryan Blaney took the race by a .007-second margin at the finish line over Rickey Stenhouse Jr., as the field went six lanes wide in a final push to the finish.
Blaney remains a close friend of Wallace. The two have been racing together since they were 10 years old and are regularly seen commiserating during rain delays through video games. In his postrace statements from Talladega, Blaney made it clear that those who wish Wallace harm would be dealt with swiftly…the display at Talladega served as a de facto reminder.
“I think it’s great that everyone rose up, Bubba included, and really came together,” Blaney said of the prerace demonstration. “I don’t want it to be remembered as a terrible day or a bad day in NASCAR. I want it to be remembered as there was an incident and we all overcame it together, showed that we were not going to take it anymore.”
“You may not like each other all the time, may tick each other off on the racetrack from time to time. (But) at the end of the day, we’re going to support each other. What really got me was when we got Bubba’s car to the front there, he had to take a little bit to pause and compose himself because it was a very emotional moment for him. I think it was emotional for him because everyone was supporting him. It’s just something different that I couldn’t personally be a part of because I’ve never been in Bubba’s position, but I’m going to support him the best I can.”
Wallace remained an active voice in the calls for change. His No. 43 scheme at Martinsville bore a message of unity as well as the “#BlackLivesMatter” slogan. The winner of six races at the NASCAR Truck Series level begins a new opportunity next season, as he will headline the newly formed 23XI Racing team under the watch of Cup Series star Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan, set to drive a Toyota bearing Jordan’s iconic No. 23.
He acknowledges that while the steps NASCAR has taken have been inspiring, more must be on the horizon.
“I think we just have to get out in our communities and we’ve created a group of us to be leadership at NASCAR as some key drivers to be a part of how we can put action to our words that we’ve been speaking and spreading the gospel,” Wallace said over the summer, acknowledging things might be hard with the confined settings of the pandemic. “Let’s focus on how we can continue to push the message of compassion and understanding and let’s help fight the good fight in what’s going on in the world today. And let’s get new fans out to the race track and encourage our fanbase now to welcome them with open arms and show them a good time. I think that’s one important piece that we can focus on right now.”
For his part, Phelps said that NASCAR is ready to dip further into social issues. Phelps acknowledged that he doesn’t see it as NASCAR getting involved in political matters…rather a human rights battle.
“What we do from a social justice standpoint moving forward really to me is about…human decency,” Phelps said. “We want to make sure that people want to come to our facilities.We want to make sure they want to participate in this sport on television, radio, digitally, and socially.We want them to feel part of this community.It’s a fantastic community, it really is.”
“I know when I go to a racetrack and I see people who are camping next to each other who are total strangers, that invite each other for a beer, do you want a hot dog, brat, whatever it is, that’s what our community is about.We want to make sure that everyone feels welcome when they come to those facilities.”
Calling upon NASCAR to solve the problems of a nation whose problems have not been subsided with the end of a bitter election process. Even things in their own house aren’t fully settled: some fans refuse to surrender the Confederate flag hill. Truck Series driver Ray Ciccarelli announced plans to leave the circuit, his reasons stemming from the ban.
But the lessons this campaign, the most unusual season in the history of NASCAR, have taught us can truly allow us to begin the healing process.
The 2020 NASCAR season featured so much from a standpoint of perseverance and unity…such a concept ironically coming in the sport where it’s the easiest to social distance. For the record, NASCAR did that pretty well too with the low number of medical absences.
A driver that could’ve well skated by with the sheer number of legendary names attached to his career and dealt with bad luck conquered those weights in tremendous fashion. Perseverance and love came through several further forms of personal triumph: Newman’s relieving walk and Chase Briscoe’s Xfinity Series win at Darlington shortly after being told his wife Marissa suffered a miscarriage stood out as well. After his apology, Larson took the next, bigger step through truly educating himself and working toward a better understanding of the consequences and effects of his slur. It was enough to earn a new full-time ride with the defending champion team of Hendrick Motorsports, driving their resurrected No. 5 Chevrolet. Wallace plans to continue to use his voice to amplify cases of change and fighting injustice.
NASCAR took a dire situation and provided a grieving national hope and guidance.
It’s a shame that some refuse to acknowledge the lessons brought forward. But, much like a car fighting for its lap back or navigating through a Big One at Talladega…they’re not going to stop on this drive.
“I would say the biggest thing that I have learned throughout all of this is that when you think something is impossible or are too scared to try, you should try it,” Logano said of the biggest lesson he’ll take away from this season. “Because it is usually not as bad as you make it out to be in your mind. Case in point, a few times this year in this sport. Who would have ever thought that we would go to a road course that we have never raced at before and just line up and race without practice? Are you kidding me? If you say that in January or February this year we would have said you were nuts and we would never ever do that. We have been forced to do things like that.”
“That is just one case in our sport. Imagine all the things that every company is going through right now. Trying to find ways to become profitable again, or at least cover their costs. You have to be creative, you have to think outside the box and you can’t be scared of trying anything. I think that alone is probably the biggest thing I have learned that I can take forward with me for years to come.”
It’s not a full-on solution…but these lessons and more could well be part of the pit stop our country sorely needs.
Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin unveiled the name of their new NASCAR Cup Series race team on Thursday, as their new venture will bear the name 23XI Racing. The name pays tribute to the number Jordan wore for a majority of his NBA career, while Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is represented via Roman numerals. Jordan’s number will also grace the track, as Bubba Wallace will drive the No. 23 Toyota when the team makes its debut next season.
“Michael and I have a shared vision for this team,” Hamlin said in a statement on the team website. “It’s exciting to see it reflected in the team name and on the race car with the iconic number 23 that Michael made famous.”
Jordan first wore No. 23 during his days at Laney High School (NC), encouraged to do by splitting the number his older brother Larry wore (45) in half. He could go on to keep the number for his collegiate and professional career with the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards, with the exception of his return from a year-long retirement in 1995, when he took the aforementioned 45.
No. 23 has had a less cherished past in the history of the NASCAR Cup Series. No car bearing the number has finished in a Cup Series race’s top ten since Kenny Wallace did so with Bill Davis Racing at the Bristol event in August 2003. Al Keller was the last driver to win a race in such a car, his victory coming back in 1954. Notable drivers to previously represent the number include Michael Waltrip and current playoff driver Alex Bowman, who ran the numbers in his first season of full-time Cup Series racing with the low-budget BK Racing.
Hamlin’s No. 11 has a more cherished place in NASCAR history, as, in terms of wins, it’s the most successful number on the Cup Series circuit (224). Names like Hamlin, Ned Jarrett, Junior Johnson, Mario Andretti, Buddy Baker, A.J. Foyt, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte, and Bill Elliott have all contributed to that tally. Hamlin has earned seven wins this season and continues to compete for the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series title. The No. 43 is second in that tally with 199 wins, all earned by Richard Petty. Wallace will run his final races in the car over the next three before joining Hamlin and Jordan’s endeavor. Petty’s race team announced this week that Erik Jones, currently Hamlin’s teammate at JGR, will succeed him the No. 43 next season.
The NASCAR Cup Series continues its trek toward the title at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Hamlin will start seventh, while Wallace will start the race in 18th.
Richard Petty Motorsports has announced that Erik Jones will be replacing Bubba Wallace in 2021, driving the iconic No. 43 car.
Jones, 24, is currently with Joe Gibbs Racing, but the organization announced on August 10th that Christopher Bell would be taking his ride. Bell spent 2018 and 2019 under Gibbs in the Xfinity series, and is driving for Leavine Family Racing in 2020. His announcement to Gibbs in 2021 came after Leavine Family Racing announced they were ceasing operations after this season.
After spending his rookie season with Furniture Row Racing in 2017, Jones filled Matt Kenseth’s seat in the No. 20 car in 2018. Jones has picked up two wins in three seasons for Gibbs, finishing in the top-10 48 times and finishing in the top-five 28 times.
In four full-time Cup Series seasons, Jones has finished in the top-20 in points in all four seasons while making the playoffs twice. He failed to advance to the round of 12 both times that he made it.
Jones will be taking over the reigns from Bubba Wallace, who will be departing to a team owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan. In Richard Petty Motorsports’ 12 year history, the team has picked up five wins and 46 top-five finishes in 861 races. However, the team hasn’t won since 2014 when Aric Almirola took the No. 43 to victory lane at Daytona in the Coke Zero 400. In 109 races with Richard Petty Motorsports, Wallace picked up nine top-10s and three top-fives.
With the confirmation of Jones to RPM, it leaves just one high-tier ride available in the Cup Series. The No. 88 for Hendrick Motorsports remains free, a ride where Jones was originally rumored to be a favorite.
In 2021 and beyond, Erik Jones will look to get The King and the No. 43 back into victory lane for Richard Petty Motorsports.
With what NASCAR refers to as its “silly season” rapidly approaching, it’s time to make predictions on where the top drivers in the sport will be running in 2021. These are just some of my initial big predictions/thoughts, but things will change rapidly once the 48 machine’s new driver is announced.
Bubba Wallace to Hendrick Motorsports (#88)
Let’s start this one out with a bang; everyone wants to know who will replace Jimmie Johnson? Erik Jones, Kyle Larson, Tyler Reddick, and Corey Lajoie were all viewed as contenders for this ride, but one guy stood out above the rest, Bubba Wallace. In no way is Bubba more talented than any of those four drivers. He is more marketable, though, and he is currently one of the biggest stars in the sport with his social justice stances. Bubba would bring an influx of sponsorship and notoriety with him to Hendrick, and it would make sense to add him. Though, I think Alex Bowman takes the prestigious 48 because of his success and fit within Hendrick Motorsports, and Bubba takes the ride known for one of the most marketable drivers in the history of the sport.
Erik Jones to Chip Ganassi Racing (#42)
Jones has a chance to lock this ride down rather quickly. Jones has been an inconsistent driver at the top level, but when he is on, he is very competitive. As a former winner and consistent playoff fixture, he fits the bill of what the team looks for in its drivers. Jones could easily be the guy to lock down the 48, but more than likely, he goes to a spot where he can stay competitive and partner up with a legend, Kurt Busch.
Chase Briscoe to Stewart Haas Racing (#14)
Briscoe’s scenario is a tough one. I could see him sticking in Xfinity for another year, but, let’s be honest, he is ready for the cup. Briscoe has been a force to be reckoned with all season and is ready for top-level competition. His racing style is eerily similar to that of Tony Stewart, and that would be poetic for him to pilot his old number. If Briscoe doesn’t land here, watch out for Kyle Larson.
Corey Lajoie to Richard Petty Motorsports (#43)
This ride is similar to the Hendrick scenario. Marketability wins, and that’s evident with Lajoie. Lajoie is a rising star who deserves a shot with better machinery. RPM isn’t a top tier team, but Lajoie could open some eyes and get to learn from the King, so it would be a no brainer for him. As for RPM, Daniel Suarez could be the guy here if Lajoie doesn’t get it.
Clint Bowyer to Fox Sports
This one is something I see truly brewing. Bowyer got to do some more commentary work progressively over the past few seasons. He has been phenomenal. The knowledge he has, combined with the comedic timing he holds, makes him a tour de force in the booth. He and Gordon have great chemistry, and he could slot in with Mike Joy and him to form an entertaining booth for the long term future.
Kyle Larson to Go Fas Racing (#32)
This one is a little strange. Larson seems like a way too talented driver for this ride on the surface, but if you dive into it, it makes sense. With Aric Almirola needing another big year next year to keep the ten car, and potentially openings emerging next year, Larson could take his shot to get back in the sport at a lower-tier team for a year. Go Fas Racing is a partner of Stewart Haas, and maybe this is how Larson can quietly reacclimatize to the sport without controversy and be groomed for a ride at SHR.