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April 9, 2022

Denny Hamlin: 23XI Racing’s two-week gloom ‘not acceptable by any means’

Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton
Getty Images

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Two organizations entered the NASCAR Cup Series as single-car operations last year, expanding to two-car fleets this season.

One is Trackhouse Racing, which has taken flight in 2022 with drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suárez. The other is 23XI Racing, the Michael Jordan-Denny Hamlin ownership supergroup which has found significant growing pains in expansion.

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Hamlin washed away his own early struggles last weekend at Richmond Raceway, scoring his first Cup Series victory of the season with a late-race surge in his Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11. But then he checked the status of 23XI’s two drivers: Bubba Wallace in 26th; Kurt Busch in 35th. Their spot in the standings, not a ton better: Busch 18th, Wallace 22nd.

“I mean, again, just trying to stop the bleeding there,” said Hamlin during Friday’s activity at Martinsville Speedway. “… I said earlier this week, you know, it’s just, the win was really exciting until you get out of the car, and you look down the pylon and say, ‘what the (expletive), like, what’s going on?’ But it’s just, it’s agitating because it’s different things on different teams. But it’s just a two-week slump that we’ve got to get out of.”

Those two weeks have been full of hardships, starting at Circuit of The Americas. Busch crashed in the No. 45 Toyota and Wallace’s No. 23 Camry lost a wheel, sending both spiraling out of the top 30 in the finishing order. Busch’s hopes for a rebound were thwarted at Richmond, where a mechanical issue sent the No. 45 behind the wall for extended repairs. He finished 109 laps off the pace.

Wallace earned 13 points in the last two races; Busch just seven. Friday at Martinsville, Hamlin examined the trouble – team by team.

“We’re trying to address all the issues that there is,” Hamlin said. “The 23 car is, the pit crew’s not doing well. You know, I’m in a meeting with Joe Gibbs Racing, and I thank them for everything they do for me, and then we walk out of that meeting into another and I’m cussing them out, because we’re just not doing a good enough job over there. So it’s just a very interesting thing that goes on, but that’s part of it.

“And then, the freak thing that happens with the 45. We’ve got a new sponsor over there, and the car’s sitting in the garage for 100 laps. So it’s just, it’s agitating but it’s … hopefully we look back on this two months from now and say, it’s just a little bump in the road, because certainly it’s not acceptable by any means.”

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Busch joined 23XI this year as the team moved to add a veteran presence with a former champion’s pedigree. He’d actually registered consecutive top-five results – fifth at Phoenix, third at Atlanta – in the two races preceding his cold streak.

Monday after Richmond, he posted a self-deprecating video clip with an Animal House rallying cry. Friday at Martinsville, he struck a hopeful tone that the worst of the team’s misfortune might be behind it.

“I look at it as, all right, the driver’s allowed to mess up once, the pit crew can mess up once, I can have a mechanical gremlin. We’re done with all those now,” Busch said. “So we’ve definitely got to put together nice, consistent runs in practice, stages, and race finishes. We’ve been through a lot already as a new team with top fives, laps led, mechanical problems, so we’re checking off all the boxes.”

Wallace, who brought 23XI its first Cup Series victory last year at Talladega, has had his results go downhill this season since a runner-up finish in the Daytona 500. He led 12 laps that opening day, and has led just three since. But like Busch, he strived to remain upbeat even during his slide in the standings.

“It’s just mistakes that happen that we’ve got to clean up,” Wallace said. “Race teams have mistakes. We seem to have a little bit more than others right now, but it’s still early in the season. We’ll be fine.”