NASCAR

Bubba Wallace Is Setting Dale Earnhardt Jr. as His Target

Tom Brady joined a new team and is one victory away from another Super Bowl ring. Bubba Wallace is also joining a new team, and the fifth-year NASCAR Cup Series driver would settle for winning the equivalent of a couple of regular-season games. The driver on basketball legend Michael Jordan’s inaugural racing team doesn’t need to be like Mike, but he sure wouldn’t mind drawing comparisons to Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Bubba Wallace enters a new phase of his career

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Bubba Wallace drove four races for Richard Petty Motorsports in place of the injured Aric Almirola in 2017 and then inherited the fabled No. 43 car on a full-time basis the following season. He proceeded to create a buzz by opening 2018 with a second-place showing at the Daytona 500, but that has proven to be Wallace’s high-water mark thus far.

In 112 career starts in the NASCAR Cup Series, all with the Petty outfit, Wallace has a modest three top-five finishes to his credit. He has only so much as finished on the lead lap in just 35 of them. Wallace’s career with Petty had pretty much run its course, and he announced late in the 2020 season that he would be leaving at the end of the drama-filled year.

Just 11 days later, Wallace was introduced as the driver for 23XI Racing, the collaboration between NASCAR veteran Denny Hamlin and basketball legend Michael Jordan.

They won’t be starting from scratch

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On the surface, 23XI Racing would seem to be facing very long odds in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season. New teams seldom start with a full complement of sponsors, and single-car organizations have it tougher. They don’t benefit from economies of scale, nor do they have teammates with whom they can share technical data to get the most out of their cars. And Bubba Wallace has name recognition, but not the sort of connection with fans that Dale Earnhardt Jr. had from Day 1.

However, none of those are issues for Wallace. With his name so closely associated with the project, majority owner Michael Jordan isn’t pinching pennies. Likewise, Danny Hamlin isn’t going to tarnish his reputation in the sport by settling for “good enough.” The 23XI Racing team has announced that they already have a full set of sponsors for Wallace’s car.

Finally, there’s an important alliance in place. Hamlin has driven exclusively for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Cup Series, the last 14 years in the No. 11 Toyota. He has forged an alliance with Toyota Racing Development and Gibbs. Toyota will build the engines and provide technical expertise. JGR will supply the chassis and various other assistance.

The goal is to match Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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Energized by his fresh start with Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin at 23XI, Bubba Wallace has set a pretty ambitious goal for the NASCAR Cup Series season that begins next month at Daytona.

There’s no reason why we can’t go out and be good and compete for wins and put ourselves in the playoffs this year,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “I have written down in a text message two wins this year. That’s solid. That’s doable.”

Remember, Wallace is 0-for-112 I his career through three-plus seasons. The idea of doing something twice that he has never accomplished once does seem a little too ambitious. On the other hand, others have proven it can be done.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won twice in 2000, his rookie season. The following year, Kevin Harvick triumphed twice as a rookie, and Jimmie Johnson went one better. Kurt Busch was winless in 47 starts and then proceeded to win four times in 2002. More recently, Chase Elliott started off 0-for-98, won three races in 2018, and was the serious champion in 2020.

“Everything is there. No more excuses for me,” Wallace said. “That’s the motto. All the resources, personnel, equipment, everything, you name it, it is right there to go out and capitalize on.”

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