There is no doubt that Bubba Wallace will be the most-watched winless driver in the field when the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule kicks off its first points race, the Daytona 500 on Feb. 14. By joining forces with Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin, Wallace has increased visibility that was already soaring last season.
Still, Wallace’s move from Richard Petty Motorsports to 23XI Racing matters less than a couple of other changes until he can translate Jordan’s money and Hamlin’s expertise into rides down victory lane.
There are at least two other drivers who should have a greater impact this year after changing teams.
Bubba Wallace is winless in 112 NASCAR Cup Series races
Bubba Wallace news dominated NASCAR at times in 2020, but little of it was a consequence of his performances on the track. Wallace did score a second-place finish at the Daytona 500 to kick off the season, a result overshadowed by Denny Hamlin successfully defending in the sport’s most prestigious event.
Now, however, Wallace works for Hamlin. In an offseason that saw a moderate level of driver movement, he made a splash by leaving Richard Petty Motorsports for the new 23XI Racing team primarily funded by NBA legend Michael Jordan and organized by Hamlin, a minority owner.
While it is true that the Petty team has been underfunded for years – Eric Almirola in 2014 was their last race winner – Wallace never amassed much of a resume in three-plus years there. He was winless in 112 NASCAR Cup Series starts. Before that, he was 0-for-85 for Joe Gibbs, Roush Fenway, and Biagi-DenBeste Racing in Xfinity cars.
Christopher Bell has a stronger background than Bubba Wallace
When Bubba Wallace left Richard Petty Motorsports, it contributed to a chain of moves. Joe Gibbs Racing eased Erik Jones out and replaced him with Christopher Bell, 25, while Jones landed with Petty. Any hire by the well-run JGR organization is guaranteed to attract attention, and that was the case when Bell was lured from Leavine Family Racing, which was sold. He joins Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., and Kyle Busch, who had been a bit of a mentor.
Bell posted a pair of top-fives and five other finishes in the top 10 last season. Before moving up to the NASCAR Cup Series, he raced in Gibbs’ Xfinity cars for three seasons and won 16 times. Bell finished third in the points in 2019 two years after capturing the Camping World Truck Series crown.
“It’s pretty cool to see that this is what we’ve all geared up for for so many years and now to be here … I’m just trying to take it all in,” Bell told Frontstretch.com. And, obviously, the day job’s about to start, so I need to do as good as I can here and try and prove to these guys that I’m the right driver.”
All eyes should be on Kyle Larson
Up until Bubba Wallace broke into the forefront, Kyle Larson was the face of the social justice and racism issue in NASCAR for the use of a slur that got him fired early in his seventh season at Chip Ganassi Racing.
Larson, 28, is now at Hendrick Motorsports alongside Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, and William Byron. He brings with him six wins in 223 NASCAR Cup Series starts and another 12 in the Xfinity series. It is telling that Larson posted three top-10s in four races before being fired a little less than a year ago. Matt Kenseth, who retired in 2018 with 39 career wins, replaced Larson at Ganassi and could muster just two top-10s in the final 32 races.
The implication there is obvious; Larson is a legitimate threat to win races this summer. His car doesn’t appear to be fully-funded for 2021 – HendrickCars.com just stepped in to sponsor him in at least a few races – but Hendrick Motorsports is one of NASCAR’s elite organizations.
Larson could absolutely prosper in 2021, even if he isn’t the driver on the move who garners the most attention this weekend at the Daytona 500.