BRISTOL, Tenn. — Despite only eight races remaining in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season, first-year team 23XI Racing made a significant personnel change.
Mike Wheeler dropped his crew-chief responsibilities and upgraded his role as director of competition to a full-time position, the organization announced Thursday. Robert “Bootie” Barker was then tapped to take over atop the No. 23 pit box and team with driver Bubba Wallace, starting Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway with the Round of 16 elimination race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN/NBC Sports App, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“I just think we were kind of overwhelming Wheels with everything he needed to do,” 23XI Racing team co-owner Denny Hamlin said. “There’s a long list of projects to get our shop ready, get all these things ready, but I need a performance bump on the 23. So how can I ask him to spend more time working on that, but yet hey, by the way, I need you to finish this list of stuff as well.”
Through their 28 races together, Wallace and Wheeler had two top-five finishes – second at Daytona International Speedway three weeks ago and fifth in the second half of the Pocono Raceway doubleheader in late June. Wallace is ranked 22nd in the points standings.
Wallace will line up 28th for his first race with Barker in his ear.
Barker’s job transition was internal at 23XI Racing.
“He really kind of did everything — and the manual labor of what a crew chief would kind of do anyway,” Hamlin said. “He did the initial builds, and then the actual race engineers took that setup and fine-tuned it to the track and driver. That’s what I’m saying, his role really won’t change that much except for he will guide those engineers during the week now with the direction he wants to go.”
Barker has deep crew-chief experience at the NASCAR Cup Series level, too, spanning from 2003-17 with three victories. His last partnership was with Ty Dillon at Germain Racing. Barker will now close out the year with Wallace.
As for 2022, Hamlin said 23XI Racing is “looking at all options,” including one that may seem rather unorthodox in NASCAR.
“We’re working on restructuring our team itself where the crew chief isn’t really a crew chief,” Hamlin said. “It’s more of a F1 style, where you have a team manager. He’s not necessarily the one putting the setups in. There will be a group that really is going to be the deciding factor on the setups of the car; the team manager, his job on race day will be a lot different than what it is during the week.”
What exactly that will look like is still to be determined.
“It’s a complicated spider chart,” Hamlin said. “But I think it promotes everyone pulling toward the team doing well.”