Wwith a lap back in Sunday’s Daytona 500, Bubba Wallace made his move. Tucked behind 15 cars lined up in a neat row on the top groove in Daytona’s 2.5-mile oval, Wallace settled into the bottom lane behind Kevin Harvick in hopes of driving race leader Joey Logano. Just when Wallace seemed to be gathering steam – disaster. Brad Keselowski, pushed by an extra hard push from Michael McDowell, rocketed him into Logano’s left rear bumper and triggered a multicar pickup. Wallace may have sneaked through if Logano’s wind turbine Ford had not hit its Toyota flush in the nose. In the end, Wallace finished a burning 17th time McDowell stole the checkered flag under caution. Needless to say, you can expect Michael Jordan to take this personally.
Besides maybe Harry and Meghan, you would be hard pressed to name another couple that people rooted harder for than Jordan and Wallace – Nascar’s new racing royalty. Wallace is the extremely gifted Nascar driver who happens to be a groundbreaking anti-racism. And Jordan is a lifelong racing fan who finally has some skin in the game after decades of fencing. Last September, they wanted to make their relationship official and form a single-car operation called 23XI Racing (pronounced twenty-three). Wallace signed as a free agent, Jordan as co-owner along with veteran Cup driver and longtime Jordan Brand ambassador Denny Hamlin. Together, Jordan and Wallace give Nascar people not one, but thaw black friends to point to next time the sport’s dismal track record of intolerance challenged.
After all, it was not so long before the announcement of this new “Dream Team” that we heard Kyle Larson, the half-Japanese-American star in Nascar’s running diversity program, by chance drop the n-word during an online race. After being devastated by all of his sponsors and starting up from his Cup run, Larson spent the next 10 months in exile undergoing diversity training as he continued to earn a comfortable live racing dirt track event – only to end up in a better Nascar Cup seat with Hendrick Motorsports last October.
In a pre-race interview with FS1’s Emmanuel Acho on Sunday, Larson pleaded ignorance of the slur while accusing a small circle of friends of “allowing me to be comfortable enough with that group to say so.” Pressed on whether these were Nascar the people he referred to, Larson, were finally unequivocal. “Oh no, not inside at all Nascar“I think racing in general may have had that reputation, but I do not think that is true. Over the last 10 months we have seen a lot of changes in the sport.”
And while it’s true that hip-hop and black athlete interviewers sneaked into Fox’s Daytona broadcast, Pitbull owns a stake in the team that faces Mexico-born driver Daniel Suarez, and WWE’s Sasha Banks green-flag Sunday race, the fundamental change of this Nascar season boils down to the two absurdly qualified black men who still have to prove they belong.
Wallace, of course, convinced Nascar to prohibit the display of the Confederate flag, only to find a leash in his garage – an incident many claim it was a scam despite the serious reactions of Nascar and the FBI. And then there’s the question of Wallace racing in the Cup in the first place, what about just four top-ten finishes in his first two years, running primarily for the famous Richard Petty. Last year, however, he identified himself as the kind of consistent challenger who could lead races with better equipment – and all the while going beyond his low-key personality to break down America’s most stubborn symbol of white supremacy, even as the US president condemned him. Now on a far better resource team in 23XI, it will not be enough for Wallace to just keep up with the traffic anymore. His haters will jump if he falls a little below the realistic expectations of his insanely competitive boss.
Likewise, Jordan has felt more compelled to vote – and money – for just political reasons in ways he never had before. Throwing his support behind the only black driver at Nascar’s top level is not only in line with his developed thinking, but also his penchant for huge games. But this one may be his most risky yet. A number of famous black athletes have only tried to put racing teams to watch these efforts crash and burn: Tim Brown. Jackie Joyner-Kersee. In the late ’90s, Jordan’s idol, Julius Erving, teamed up with former NFL retreat Joe Washington to start a Cup team. But the effort never took shape, as Erving and Washington for the most part failed to marshal sponsorship. In 1998, they showed up at Daytona with a Busch Series car and struggled to make subsequent races. Two years later, they were out of order.
Jordan, however, does not expect to disappear so humbly. First, he’s a billionaire and the owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets to start. For another, he does not start a team from scratch as much as he does in front of a sister team of Joe Gibbs Racing, a multi-year Cup favorite with significant resources to carry – not least a technical alliance with Toyota. Not long after Wallace signed on the dotted line, McDonald’s, Columbia Sportswear and DoorDash followed suit. In a pre-race interview with Michael Strahan of Fox Sports, Jordan said he thought Wallace could win “at least a few races”. Until then, the investigation of their No. 23 car risks reaching Danica Patrick levels of intensity.
Without a doubt, Wallace’s haters were urged to watch the 23XI car get started on an Erving-like Sunday. After qualifying for a career-high sixth place in Daytona, Wallace was sent to the back of the net after his Toyota repeatedly failed inspection and risked being scratched completely from the race. But a road to victory looked possible after a 14th lap accident that cleared 16 cars from the center of the track just before a five-hour rain delay. When racing was resumed under the light around noon. At 9.30pm, Wallace reappeared at the top of the track, no worse for wear and tear working with the top cars and even driving a lap – the first time a black driver has ever done so at Daytona. He hung in until the bitter end before McDowell – a 100-1 underdog – claimed the first win of his otherwise unreliable 14-year Cup career after midnight.
And while 17th place may not seem like a big deal to Wallace, who usually ends right out there, a little perspective is helpful. As Jordan himself acknowledged in the Fox interview, so much of this sport is beyond the driver’s control. “When I’m on the field, I can take a rebound I can shoot. I can play defense, ”he told Strahan. “Here I can only rejoice.”
That a black owner and a black driver even appeared on the Daytona 500 for the first time since 1969, remained in the hunt for the entire race and will continue for the rest of this season and beyond, is an achievement on par with Jordan’s free-throw slam dunk – simply amazing. That under clever Hamlin’s leadership they were able to accomplish so much so quickly is proof of the viability of this promising new venture. Still, it will take a few more copycats and far less virtue signaling before Nascar can really call this progress.
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