DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — NBA legend Michael Jordan interrupted Denny Hamlin’s post-race interviews for a quick word of congratulation, reaching over reporters with his renowned wingspan to pop the bill of his friend and associate’s cap.
“Way to go, partner!” Jordan told his fellow team owner, touting their accomplishment of 23XI Racing placing both of its entries in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs for the first time in only its third year of competition. Bubba Wallace became the 16th and final qualifier for the 10-race postseason with a 12th-place finish in the Coke Zero Sugar 400. He’ll race for a title for the first time in his Cup Series career, joining teammate Tyler Reddick in the field.
The outcome at Daytona International Speedway ended a consequential closing stretch to the regular season for Wallace and his No. 23 Toyota team. The 29-year-old driver stayed clean during the final three races — challenging road-course events at Indianapolis and Watkins Glen, then the finale at often-fickle Daytona. Wallace eluded the trouble that thwarted his peers on the playoff bubble, qualifying on the basis of his points cushion when no new winners emerged in Saturday night’s showdown.
“He went through the toughest tests,” Hamlin said. “The toughest test is you’ve got two road courses that he’s not at the top at, and he’s got a superspeedway and he’s got to lead and he’s got to find a way to hold it, and he held serve to say the least. So really happy for that team and Bubba for accomplishing what we set out for a goal for that team at the beginning of the year, and that was to have two cars in the playoffs. That was the only goal that that race team had. Now it’s all up to them.”
Wallace was the first driver tapped to the 23XI roster when the organization launched in late 2020, just months before its debut season. It’s grown since, swelling to a two-car operation the next year and expanding again this season to include a third entry at select Cup Series events. The team is moving to a new shop, currently being built in Huntersville, North Carolina.
The team’s growth has also dovetailed with Wallace’s development behind the wheel in his sixth Cup Series season.
“I mean, he’s been a leader of this team from the beginning, right?” 23XI Racing president Steve Lauletta told NASCAR.com. “He was the only car we ran in 2021, so he’s seen and he’s got his fingerprints on everything we’ve been doing at 23XI and has continued to push us to get better, push himself to get better, and it showed tonight, for sure. Now we’ve got 10 weeks more to see what we can do.”
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What headway 23XI can make is one of the postseason’s burning questions. Reddick reached the playoffs the last two seasons with Richard Childress Racing, and the 2023 campaign marks a return postseason appearance in his first year with 23XI. The experience will be new for Wallace, who has scored both Cup Series wins in his career — 2021 at Talladega and last year at Kansas — during the playoffs.
Both of those tracks are back in the postseason rotation again this year, and Hamlin is optimistic about how far Wallace can advance.
“He’s gonna have fast cars, I can assure you of that,” Hamlin said. “And so, I think he’s gonna be excited and love the challenge that this is going to put in front of them. Certainly, I believe that the tracks lay out well for Bubba now, especially the first round, so I think certainly they can find themselves for a threat to go as deep as their execution. I think that’s going to be the key is, if they can execute to get some stage points, they can run pretty deep.”