KANSAS CITY, Kan. – When the iconic Michael Jordan teamed with one of NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers in Denny Hamlin to form 23XI Racing, few would have pinned Kansas Speedway as the team’s best facility.
That includes the team’s inaugural driver, Bubba Wallace.
Yet the 1.5-mile tri-oval just west of the Missouri River beckoned a 23XI sweep in 2022, only its second year in existence, giving the two-car program half of its four total wins at this one track alone. The No. 45 Toyota prevailed at the Midwestern circuit in both May and September, but it was both primary drivers Kurt Busch and Wallace collecting the respective wins.
“I’m assuming that when they all started this, they didn’t really plan on sweeping Kansas races in their second year going,” Wallace said Saturday.
Wallace returns in his now-traditional No. 23 entry while fresh-faced teammate Tyler Reddick has taken over the No. 45 car in place of Busch after his 2022 injury. Team president Steve Lauletta lauded how critical last year’s triumphs were for the young organization ahead of Sunday’s AdventHealth 400 (3 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“I think it was a big statement for the team because of how we won both races, right?” Lauletta told NASCAR.com in a Wednesday phone interview. “It was the first win for a brand-new team and the 45 in the spring with Kurt behind the wheel. And then we follow it up with the 23 team with Bubba in the fall, who was running the 45 based on Kurt making the playoffs from that Kansas win, and we backed it up, and we drove that car to Victory Lane.
“So the 45 winning both races in Kansas with two different drivers, two different teams shows how adaptable the team is and how we work as one organization in terms of preparing and sharing data and information. And the approach that we have as an organization really came to life with how we won both those races.”
The circumstances in 2022 were challenging to say the least. Busch, beginning that year at age 43, joined the program to help the team grow and invest his time, energy and championship-caliber abilities to do so. His May victory was physical proof that work on and off the track was paying off.
But the concussion Busch sustained during qualifying at Pocono Raceway a little more than two months later has sidelined the 2004 NASCAR Cup Series champion to this day. Busch remains an integral part of 23XI Racing, though, an ever-present face despite no longer wheeling a race car himself.
“He’s active with the drivers, working with both Tyler and Bubba,” Lauletta said. “He’s active with everybody on the team from a culture standpoint and bringing his enthusiasm and his love of building this team into a contender that he has his fingerprints on from last year and wants to keep that going.
“He’s also got his input into what we’re doing with our partners, keeping a great relationship with Monster, with McDonald’s, with Toyota and MoneyLion and all the ones that supported him last year when he moved to 23XI. So he hasn’t missed a beat with us, and in fact, is having as much of an impact out of the car as he did in the car last year.”
What the team accomplished on track in Kansas a season ago still resonates loudly within the shop. Wallace’s September victory propelled the No. 45 team further into the owners points playoffs and served as his second career Cup win – his first on a non-superspeedway oval.
“That team and Bubba took that responsibility, and week in and week out were a top-10 car, and that led to, you know, closing it out with the win at Kansas,” Lauletta said. “But they were just always there. And that had him and everybody here realizing like we can do this week in and week out, and there shouldn’t be any expectation that we’re not going to do that.”
The Kansas victory was no mistake, either. The Alabama native led for a career-high 58 laps en route to the win, adding onto a career-best season in top fives (five) and top 10s (10) while scoring a victory in consecutive seasons.
“The win last year was big for the team, and to complete the sweep was really cool,” Wallace said. “I thought the 23 car was pretty solid there in the first race too. We had some troubles that kind of took us out of contention, but to come back and seal the deal in the 45 was just special for our team and being so new, right? That was our second year, and making the most of it. … Just proud to be a part of the process. And coming back here, all the momentum’s on our side.”
That September performance was a statement, not just to spectators but higher-ups within the 23XI organization. Wallace is the driver Jordan and Hamlin chose to build the program around when it came onto the scene in 2021. In truth, the win was an exclamation point on the solid midseason Wallace strung together over the course of the 2022 season. His growth has been evident to team co-owner Hamlin.
“He’s better than I thought he was,” a blunt Hamlin said. “I mean, that’s just the simple answer is that I knew he was good. I didn’t know how that he had the potential to be great. And I think that he’s continued to chip away at getting better and better every week. Every race track that has been an Achilles’ heel to him, he just keeps chipping away and finishing a few spots better each time he goes. He’s really evolving as a driver, and I think that I’m super-proud for him.”
The turning point came almost exactly a year ago.
“After Dover last year, met with the drivers, met with the team on my expectations,” Hamlin explained. “I certainly was not ecstatic about our performance, both on and off the race track and just felt like we needed to step up and figure out who we were going to be.”
Now in the 23XI fold himself, Reddick showed significant speed in his No. 8 Chevrolet with Richard Childress Racing in 2022 in both Kansas races, but flat tires derailed his days in each visit.
“Seeing the pace that the 23XI has when we’ve been going to Kansas and having to race against them, in the past, it’s been frustrating, but now it’s really nice seeing the speed that they have,” Reddick said last week at Dover.
With speed comes a plethora of positivity heading into a race weekend. Wallace and Reddick know the tall tasks at hand that come with putting a complete race together en route to the win. But motivating performances and open notebooks provide a strong platform to build upon heading into this weekend’s event.
“Everyone takes a lot of great notes,” Reddick said, praising Busch in addition to crew chiefs Billy Scott and Bootie Barker. “Just the amount of information that everyone shares within our organization and then what we share with Joe Gibbs and back and forth gives us all a lot of knowledge to go off of. So everyone’s done a really good job of that, and we’ve had plenty to go off of for sure to prepare for this race.”
Such a detailed notebook stokes confidence, which Reddick has proven can be enough fuel on its own to propel him to success.
“When you have confidence like that, it’s a game changer, you know?” Reddick said. “I mean, like, we were all kind of nervous (yet) excited about what we were gonna have at COTA, right? And we go out there and P1 in practice, run the lap times that we did, and then qualify like we did too, you know, like, that’s just a huge shot of confidence.
“So when you’re going into a place that you won both races last year, as a team standpoint, you’re very, very confident going in, and that’s a great thing for motivation.”
Both drivers have proven their strengths at this particular mile-and-a-half track. Now the internal battles begin.
“Obviously, Bubba’s excited about Kansas. I am, too,” Reddick said. “I guess we’ve just gotta figure out how we’re gonna sort that one out – which one of us will win it.”