TALLADEGA, Ala. — As Bubba Wallace made his way down pit road toward the indoor Victory Lane at Talladega Superspeedway, 23XI Racing co-owner Denny Hamlin approached the crowd surrounding his driver and took in the scene with a soft smile. People were congratulating Wallace left and right on his first career win, as others snapped pictures and recorded reactions. Once Wallace was free, even if for just a second, Hamlin made his move, embracing Wallace in a long, firm hug.
In that moment, Wallace thanked Hamlin – for believing in him, for giving him a chance – and expressed how much both meant. Hamlin kept it short and sweet – “I’m proud of you” – before letting go and walking off.
“It’s like watching your kid succeed at whatever they’re doing, whether it be baseball, musical theater, whatever, right?” Hamlin said. “I have no relation to anyone on this team, but they are family. We spend a lot of time together, we work hard together. I know the people within the shop work very, very hard. They had to work their tails off to get this team off the ground just 10, 12 months ago.”
Twelve months and 12 days to be exact, as of Monday’s breakthrough victory. Sept. 21 was the one-year anniversary of 23XI Racing’s formation announcement. Hamlin began the team in 2020 with NBA legend Michael Jordan, who shared his victory excitement on Twitter.
The No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota was fielded with help from Joe Gibbs Racing, with the two organizations sharing a technical alliance. Hamlin still competes for JGR full time in its No. 11 Toyota, currently in the championship hunt.
Wallace has piloted the No. 23 to the one win, three top fives and three top 10s through 31 races. He’s averaging an 18.8 finish.
“I knew it was going to be a process, but I maybe underestimated the process in which it takes to ultimately be a top-tier team and the time it takes to get all the recruits that you need,” Hamlin said. “We’re looking at talent and seeing, OK, when is their contract up? OK, let’s kind of bookmark that and go after them during that time.
“It truly is a five-year period of, like, runway getting where you want to be.”
Changes and progress are already being made.
Wallace was 23XI Racing’s first and only driver in 2021. In August, the team announced it’ll add Kurt Busch to its 2022 lineup in the No. 45 Toyota, as the Next Gen car makes its competitive debut. His crew chief has been picked but not revealed.
Speaking of crew chiefs, Wallace’s recently swapped out. Mike Wheeler was atop the No. 23 pit box for the first 29 races of 2021. His role as director of competition at 23XI Racing then upgraded to a full-time position. Robert “Bootie” Barker was picked to take over as the signal caller for the rest of the season.
Monday’s win marked not only a first for 23XI Racing in 31 starts, Wallace in 143 starts but also Barker in 484 starts.
“I know a lot of history was made today I believe, which is really cool,” Wallace said. “But it’s about my guys, about our team, what we’ve done. Appreciate Michael Jordan, appreciate Denny for believing in me, giving me an opportunity.”
Said Barker: “It takes a lot of things to win a race. It’s a million ways to lose one and one way to win one. So, I mean, I did what I had to do to get this far, so I appreciate with Denny giving me a shot.”
Sometimes that’s all it takes to create success. In its first season of existence, 23XI Racing became a race-winning team. Hamlin admits, he never imaged that.
The 40-year-old himself is a 46-time winner at NASCAR’s top level, as a driver. Now, he’s also a winning team owner.
“It’s big in so many ways,” Hamlin said. “I can’t even express it. Certainly way more emotional than what it is when I win.”