Michael Jordan in NASCAR: A slam dunk or an air ball?

Michael Jordan, 23XI Racing, NASCAR (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images)
Michael Jordan, 23XI Racing, NASCAR (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images) /

Michael Jordan is set to enter NASCAR in 2021 as a Cup Series team co-owner with Denny Hamlin. Will 23XI Racing prove to be a worthwhile endeavor?

Coming to a NASCAR track near you in 2021, a familiar name and number are returning to the national sports scene. NBA legend Michael Jordan has joined forces with Cup Series driver Denny Hamlin to form 23XI Racing (pronounced twenty-three eleven) to field a one-car, (appropriately numbered) #23 Toyota team driven by former Richard Petty Motorsports driver Bubba Wallace.

23XI Racing hired former Hamlin crew chief Mike Wheeler to direct the pit. The #23 car will receive support from Toyota Racing Development, and the team will enter a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing.

With these advantages from the get-go, 23XI Racing are poised to be competitive from the first green flag. Strong sponsorship doesn’t hurt, either. So far, Jordan Brand, McDonald’s, Columbia Sportswear, Dr. Pepper and Root Insurance have signed on for sponsoring the #23 Toyota.

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Wallace is a promising young driver who generated a lot of buzz with strong finishes in his full-time Xfinity Series (third place in 2014) and Truck Series (seventh in 2015) seasons.

Since joining the Cup Series full-time in 2018, he is winless with nine top 10 finishes and a top points finish of 22nd place (2020). He has driven his entire Cup Series career with Richard Petty’s team, and his best finish was his second place finish in the 2018 Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

To Wallace’s credit, his lack of success at Richard Petty Motorsports can just as well be attributed to struggling sponsor support and funding overall. His second place finish in the 2018 Daytona 500 is second only to Aric Almirola winning the 2014 July race at Daytona as far as the team’s overall success over the last decade.

Bill Elliott and Kasey Kahne were the last multiple-win drivers for the team, and that was in the 2000s (Elliott in 2002, Kahne in 2006, 2008 and 2009).

Crew chief Mike Wheeler and Hamlin have worked together before. Wheeler was Hamlin’s crew chief for part of the 2014 season and then again from the 2016 season through the 2018 season.

The two enjoyed five wins together, most notably their 2016 Daytona 500 victory. After leaving Joe Gibbs Racing and Hamlin following a winless 2018 season, Wheeler spent the 2019 season at Leavine Family Racing, where he guided then-#95 Toyota driver Matt DiBenedetto to a 22nd place finish in the standings.

When it comes to cross-sports ownership, former Washington Football Team and three-time Super Bowl winning coach Joe Gibbs is by far the most successful. One of the factors in his success was a complete break from the NFL. He completely reinvested his time and energy into Joe Gibbs Racing.

His team won their first Cup Series title with Bobby Labonte (Pontiac) in 2000, followed by two more each from Tony Stewart (Pontiac, 2002 and 2005) and Kyle Busch (Toyota, 2015 and 2019).

Former NBA player and fellow North Carolinian Brad Daugherty has also been involved in the sport since the late 1990s, and he is currently a part-owner of JTG Daugherty Racing. While he may not have experienced the same success that Gibbs has, Daugherty has still managed to be a part of NASCAR for a very long time, which is a huge accomplishment in this day and age.

In racing, and specifically in athlete-owned teams, Joe Gibbs Racing have become an anomaly. Other recent and notable, albeit unsuccessful, attempts were the Terry Bradshaw-backed Fitz-Bradshaw Racing team from 2002 to 2006, and the Troy Aikman-Roger Staubach partnership, Hall of Fame Racing, from 2005 to 2007.

But neither team had the level of support that 23XI will be starting with, and they were ultimately dissolved and/or absorbed by more established teams.

This move may seem to be coming out of left field to the casual NASCAR observer. However, the Jordan Brand has been involved in NASCAR and has sponsored Hamlin since 2011.

Hamlin, a three-time Daytona 500 winner and perennial championship contender, has been driving full-time for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Cup Series since 2005. Jordan, while famous for his NBA playing days and his Jordan Brand athletic wear, is a North Carolina native, and as the owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, he is no stranger to NASCAR culture or team ownership.

But while the support from Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing definitely gives 23XI Racing valuable advantages, it does not guarantee success. Communication between Wallace and Wheeler will be key, and they may take a little while to completely gel as a team due to the reduced practicing and qualifying limits NASCAR has imposed for the 2021 season.

Even though the #23 team already possess the ingredients to make a big splash with big-time sponsorship lined up, a capable driver, great equipment and an experienced crew chief, it will still be up to Wallace to get the car in victory lane.

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To add to the pressure, Wallace and Wheeler are starting their partnership amid high expectations from the boss. At the Toyota press conference announcing the team, Jordan was his hyper competitive self and made it very clear he expects the team to do very well from the first green flag.