INSIGHT: 23XI, from a two-car garage to Talladega winner in less than a year

Less than a year ago, 23XI Racing was holding competition meetings in Mike Wheeler’s garage. As you’ll recall, the new team encountered some hiccups getting into the race shop it’s using in Mooresville, North Carolina, by the targeted date of early December, and with people already employed and ready to get to work, they needed someplace to do that. So Wheeler, who started as the organization’s competition director and crew chief, gathered team personnel at his two-car garage.

Once shop keys were acquired, paint needed to go on the walls. The team required branded clothing, insurance, computers, and an IT department. Sure, building race cars and preparing for a new season was important, but so were all the other little details the Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan co-owned operation had to do.

It all got worked out even if it was a mad dash, or “hell week,” as Wheeler described, to get to Speedweeks at Daytona. One can only imagine what Wheeler and everyone else at 23XI Racing are going to call this week.

“It’s like watching your kid succeed at whatever they’re doing, whether it be baseball, musical theater, whatever,” said Denny Hamlin of winning as an owner versus driver. “I have no relation to anyone on this team, but they are family. We spend a lot of time together; we work hard together. I know the people within the shop work very, very hard. They had to work their tails off to get this team off the ground just 10, 12 months ago.

“I can understand, and I appreciate this win more as a car owner because I know how hard the last 10 to 12 months have been putting this thing together and trying to take it up to NASCAR’s highest level, which is not easy, obviously. We’re still in the building stage; we’re still in the growing stages of our team. This is just a huge morale boost, a huge confidence boost for Bubba. There’s a lot of positives that will come out of this that will linger for a very, very long time.”

Wallace (No. 23 Toyota) has gotten used to finding the font at Talladega Superspeedway, finally rolling into Victory Lane at the end of a rain-shortened race on Monday. John K Harrelson/Motorsport Images

Wallace was in the right place at the right time when the caution flew on lap 116 to halt the action before the skies opened soon after that. But he drove himself into that position.

The No. 23 Toyota was in contention all afternoon. Wallace was both lucky in avoiding the carnage that struck, and good at putting himself where he needed to be when it mattered. Wallace has now led laps (33) in the last five Talladega races.

Talladega undoubtedly is a bright spot for the company. Not only in winning, but putting together a complete race. There have been races where the team has looked far off the pace it needs, and then others, like the second race of a Pocono doubleheader, where it looked in the window. Doing that consistently has been the problem.

Wheeler, who moved solely into the competition department last month as Bootie Barker became crew chief, acknowledged it’d been a never-ending battle. Monday evening, as he made the rounds talking about his victory, Wallace admitted there’s been a lot of frustration and a lot of shouting matches.

“We continue to build this organization up,” Wallace said. “I got Kurt [Busch] coming over next year. He was one of the drivers (who) came up during the rain delay there. I appreciate him, his optimism, his wisdom. We just got to keep going. I got to go to the [Charlotte] Roval, my best track — not — next week. Just go out and have some fun. This win didn’t put us in the playoffs or anything, but there was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.”

The victory is significant for many reasons. Wallace being a Cup Series winner and the second Black driver to win at NASCAR’s highest level. A win for a first-year team. A team co-owned by Hamlin, who is putting together a Hall of Fame career for his on-track accomplishments, and Jordan, an NBA legend. Then, you look at how 23XI aims to be different off the track with diversity efforts in its hiring or working with sponsor Dr. Pepper on scholarship programs.

Team president Steve Lauletta recently said it is not inaccurate to look at 23XI as a brand that just happens to go racing.

“Emotions (are) obviously super high,” said Hamlin. “I didn’t realize it would be this high at this moment. I understand the process in which it takes to get to this point, winning in NASCAR’s highest level. I’m in every meeting. I’m hands-on with the team. I know how hard they work. I certainly am more emotional, happier with someone else’s victory than mine on this day.”

For Barker, it marks his first win as a crew chief in 484 starts. For Wallace, it is his first win in 143 starts. For 23XI, it is their first win in 31 starts.

And to think, it all started in a home garage.