How ‘fake news’ turned Michael Jordan into a NASCAR team owner

Michael Jordan, 23XI Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Michael Jordan, 23XI Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) /

Netflix recently released a documentary about Bubba Wallace, which shed light on how NBA legend Michael Jordan made the decision to enter NASCAR as a team owner.

Race: Bubba Wallace, a Netflix docuseries which follows NASCAR Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace, was released late last month. The six-episode series discusses how Wallace got to where he is today and how he reckons with who he is on and off the race track.

Among the many topics explored throughout these six episodes is Wallace’s current race team, 23XI Racing. This team, formed by Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan, was announced late in the 2020 season, and they made their debut in 2021 with Wallace behind the wheel of the #23 Toyota.

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The “23XI” name is a nod to Jordan’s number (23) and Hamlin’s number (11, or XI in Roman numerals).

How the team came into being is a topic which Hamlin discussed at length in one part of the docuseries.

During the summer of 2020, there were various silly season rumors about Jordan potentially joining the Cup Series as a team owner.

But just a few months earlier, the six-time NBA champion had made clear that he was content with being a fan and didn’t want to get involved in the sport as an owner.

“I love being a fan,” Jordan said. “I still understand the sport, but in terms of ownership, I think I’m just gonna sit back and watch it and support from afar.”

That had been Jordan’s approach for years, and he didn’t give any indication that this might change. But that didn’t stop the chatter from heating up during the 2020 silly season.

In mid-August, it was reported by Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern that Richard Petty Motorsports had been speaking with several prospective new investors, and one of them was said to be a celebrity. That celebrity was rumored to be Jordan on Dirty Mo Media’s “Door, Bumper, Clear.”

This ultimately led to the rumor that Jordan would be joining Hamlin, a personal friend of Jordan who had long had a personal deal with Nike’s Michael Jordan Brand, and purchasing a stake of Richard Petty Motorsports, along with Wallace. Wallace was in his third season as the driver of the team’s #43 Chevrolet at the time.

Hamlin himself had already been the subject of potential team ownership rumors that summer, and for good reason.

“I wanted to run a business,” Hamlin said in the docuseries. “For me, team ownership is something that really piqued my interest.”

In fact, a since-deleted report (still available on Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine) stated on Wednesday, August 26, 2020 that it was a done deal, with Richard Petty’s team set to switch from Chevrolet to Toyota and form a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing. Other sources picked up the report later that day and ran with it.

But Fox Sports’ Bob Pockrass went on to shoot down the rumor, indicating that he had been informed that there was no truth to it whatsoever.

The following morning, we highlighted the rumor and the fact that it had already been shot down, despite the fact that additional sources had called it “all locked in”.

Interestingly, it was later that day, Thursday, August 27, when Jordan’s spokesperson, Estee Portnoy, released a statement shooting down the rumor for good.

“There is no truth to that rumor at all,” Portnoy said. “Michael Jordan is not considering an investment in NASCAR’s Richard Petty Motorsports.”

What Portnoy didn’t do, however, was completely shoot down the idea of Jordan joining NASCAR as a team owner — an interesting development to say the least, considering the fact that Jordan had previously been totally against the idea.

The only thing that was shot down was the idea of him investing in Richard Petty Motorsports. Of course, the reason for that is now obvious, with Jordan having ended up as a co-owner of 23XI Racing along with Hamlin.

But how that happened is what is particularly intriguing.

It was the “fake news” which ultimately led to Jordan joining the Cup Series as a team owner.

Hamlin discussed this during the docuseries.

“And then a news article came out, kind of a, uh…one that wasn’t really real, and it says well, ‘A current NASCAR driver, Denny Hamlin, and Michael Jordan looking to purchase a stake.’ And I think it was just a speculative article,” Hamlin said.

Ironically, it was the aforementioned Beyond the Flag article, which laid out the origination of the rumor as well as the fact that it had been shot down, that caught Hamlin’s eye, just one day after the original errant report was published.

“I’ll never forget, I was on the ninth hole at my home golf course, and I’m like, ‘Should I send Michael this article? Let me get his temperature here.’”

This follow-up article, titled “NASCAR: Michael Jordan buying into a Cup team?”, was featured in a still during Race: Bubba Wallace and cited as the one which got Jordan thinking about changing his approach and making the jump from fan to owner.

Jordan immediately confirmed that the rumor was false, which everyone had pretty much concluded by that point.

“And I sent it to him,” Hamlin continued. “And he responded immediately. He says, ‘Haha’, you know, ‘Obviously, fake news. Not real. But if you want to make it real news, let me know.’”

And he wanted to make it real news.

“About 24 to 48 hours later, I flew down to Florida, talked to him at the golf course, and said, you know, ‘Here’s an option. Toyota is open to this. JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) is open to this. What do you think?’” Hamlin explained.

All the pieces were in place to make it happen. But not with Richard Petty Motorsports.

“Jordan says, ‘Well, let me get my business guys on it, and let me vet it, and uh, we’ll get back to you.’ And in the end, he says, ‘I’m in.’”

On Thursday, September 10, 2020, Wallace announced that he would be leaving Richard Petty Motorsports after three seasons. Wallace, who had already held an ownership stake in the team, was reportedly offered an even greater stake to keep him behind the wheel in 2021. But he turned that down.

The Mobile, Alabama native also had an offer on the table from Chip Ganassi Racing to drive the #42 Chevrolet. But that deal wasn’t mean to be either.

Why? Because Hamlin and Jordan turned “fake news” into “real news”.

On Monday, September 21, Ross Chastain, not Wallace, was confirmed as Chip Ganassi Racing’s new driver. And later in the day, Jordan and Hamlin confirmed that they would be forming 23XI Racing ahead of the 2021 season, announcing Wallace as their first driver.

Additional details were revealed in October 2020, with the team confirming that they would form a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing and partner with Toyota.

They acquired a charter from Germain Racing, which shut down after the 2020 season, and effectively replaced Leavine Family Racing, which had had a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing for two years prior to their own post-2020 shutdown.

Richard Petty Motorsports would end up undergoing a significant change in ownership after all, but not until the 2022 season. They merged with GMS Racing to form Petty GMS Motorsports, a two-car operation which made their debut in this year’s Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

23XI Racing haven’t stopped at one car, either. They purchased a second charter from StarCom Racing, which shut down after the 2021 season, and added the #45 Toyota for 2004 Cup Series champion Kurt Busch. Ironically, Busch, who joined the team in 2022 after spending the last three seasons competing for Chip Ganassi Racing, could have ended up as Wallace’s teammate one year sooner had 23XI Racing not gotten started.

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Wallace delivered 23XI Racing their first victory last October in a rain-shortened race at Talladega Superspeedway. This year, he and Busch are attempting to get the young team into the playoffs for the first time. And none of it would have been possible if not for the “fake news”.