DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – They keep telling us that scientists haven’t figured out how to clone humans yet. There’s too much evidence to the contrary here at Daytona International Speedway. That evidence comes in the form of a man who seems to be in so many places at once.
He drives a racing car. He owns a racing car that is used and driven by a new team Bubba Wallace. And when he’s not speaking to either of those two teams, he’s answering questions about his new business partner, the other co-owner of Wallace’s drive.
“Hey Denny, where is Michael Jordan?”
Denny Hamlinis in car number 11. Hamlin has his head in the window of car number 23. Hamlin is on the phone with the greatest basketball player who ever lived. And he did it all every day during the biggest week of the NASCAR season. There is no way he could be just a guy, could he?
“Yeah, I’m busy,” said Denny Hamlin. “But busy is good.”
40-year-old Hamlin is NASCAR’s Swiss Army Knife. Team owner, businessman, sponsor spokesman, social media guru, father and, oh yeah, he’s a pretty good racing driver too. He is driving for Joe Gibbs Racing in his 16th full-time season. In the last two years he has achieved 13 victories in the NASCAR Cup Series (with Kevin Harvick), and during that time he has led the series in the top 5 finishes (37 out of 72 races) and is the only driver to have reached the championship finals four in both years. He has 44 career wins, the third best among active drivers, and three Daytona 500 wins in the past five years.
If he wins the Great American Race on Sunday, Hamlin will become the first three-peat champion in the event’s 63-year history. Cale Yarborough, Sterling marlin and Richard Petty are the only other drivers to win two in a row. He is one of only four riders whose name has been engraved three times on the Harley J. Earl Trophy. Only Yarborough (4) and Petty (7) have more Daytona 500 wins than Hamlin.
“It feels completely crazy to me to mention my name by that name,” said Hamlin a year ago after his breathtaking 0.014 second win Ryan Blaney. “But having it mentioned in the context of the Daytona 500 with them isn’t just crazy. It’s crazy.”
Almost as absurd as his list of Daytona Speedweeks to do in 2021. He drove the most laps in the Busch Clash on Tuesday evening before finishing sixth, finished eleventh in pole qualifying on Wednesday evening and drove to Duel 150 am before his qualifying race Thursday night to the top before finishing 13th with an empty fuel tank. He also announced a new co-main sponsor for his cup ride, had one lively social media debate with a passenger about the business model of NASCAR team ownership and exclaimed the short-distance racing industry for his continued insistence on making life and running far too complicated.
He’s also paced from the car he drives to the car he co-owns, Wallace’s new Toyota Camry # 23, between each event and training session. That team, 23XI Racing, had an incredibly successful speedweeks like Wallace fastest in Wednesday training, qualified fourth and had the lead in the second duel 150 on Thursday evening with the checkered flag in sight before losing to Austin Dillon by 0.057 seconds. He starts the Daytona 500 from sixth place, 19 places ahead of his boss.
This is a fantastic trip to Daytona for any racing team. But this is not a racing team. This team existed for no less than five months, as announced on September 21. The off-season started without a crew or a racing car. It didn’t even have an office. While Hamlin reached the finals of the NASCAR championship as a driver in November, as a team co-owner he also dealt with real estate documents and construction plans.
And yes, its co-owner is a former North Carolina basketball player named Jordan. When Wallace led his duel 150 in the final laps, the racer became the broadcaster Clint Bowyer We shouted over our TV speakers what everyone in the Cup series’ garage had been thinking all week and will surely ask on Sunday when it is time for the Great American Race.
“Has anyone seen MJ? That’s all I want to know! Has anyone seen MJ ?!”
At Jordan Watch, Daytona hummed at a level not seen in 30 years when Tom Cruise was filming Days of Thunder in town. His Airness hadn’t shown up on the speedway by the time the race weekend arrived, but it wasn’t difficult to trace his whereabouts. All you have to do is take a look local social media accounts.
“We’ve talked more in the last few weeks and he’s just excited,” Hamlin said of Jordan on the eve of the Speedweeks. “He has a great team of people that I work with that really gives us a lot of autonomy to make sure we do things the way we see fit.”
It starts with hiring the right people and buying the best equipment. Team 23XI (named after Jordan’s # 23 and Hamlin’s # 11) has a technical alliance with Hamlin’s employer Joe Gibbs Racing, and Hamlin’s former JGR crew chief Mike Wheeler sets the tone in the business and on the track. That’s a lot of good racing gear and a lot of racing smarts. But they are very busy. On the racetrack, this means that pit stops with a group that is still getting to know each other are brought up to date. In the racing shop you need to find out how to turn on the lights and where the bathrooms are.
Work is underway to lay a solid foundation for the future of the team – and Hamlins. Literally. The concrete floor for the new 23XI shop was poured just last month.
“My bosses are three-time Daytona 500 winners and perhaps the greatest athlete who has ever lived,” Wallace said of Hamlin and Jordan. “My crew chief has already won a Daytona 500. I will listen to everything you have to say, whenever you have to say it, no matter when.
In Daytona this week, the boss in a FedEx fire suit walked from his garage booth to Wallace’s with questions and advice. But next Sunday this conversation will end. Hamlin is about helping its driver become the first black driver to win a Cup Series race in nearly 60 years, and the first to win the Daytona 500.
But when it comes to fighting between the driver / owner and the car he owns, Hamlin has some Daytona 500 record settings that he wants to take care of first and becomes the first consecutive champion of NASCAR’s biggest race.
“I hope I’ll be there in the end, that I’ll give myself the chance to make history because that’s what I’m here for in the end,” he said. “Writing history, doing something that nobody has done before, that motivates me to get this.”