KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin founded 23XI Racing with a vision that extended far beyond the race track.
The Hall of Fame basketball player and the three-time Daytona 500 champion looked around the sport a couple of years ago and realized that it needed to get younger and much more inclusive. It needed to expand its talent pool in the race shop along with the fanbase in the stands if it wanted to resume its once-rapid growth.
All of which is a whole lot easier to accomplish after days like Sunday.
With the No. 45 car from their two-car stable decked out in Jordan Brand-themed graphics, Kurt Busch squeezed past Kyle Larson with eight laps to go to win a thriller at Kansas Speedway. Busch give 23XI a second Cup Series triumph after Bubba Wallace won last year at Talladega, when the team was still a single-car endeavor, and it came in a ride with the Jumpman logo on the hood and about as much cross-over appeal as Jordan could hope for.
“Yeah, that’s a lot of the reason we started this race team is Michael felt like NASCAR was a platform that didn’t maybe always understand his brand. He thought this was a good way to branch out the Jordan Brand,” said Hamlin, who finished fourth behind Larson and Kyle Busch in Sunday’s race.
“Obviously, they sat on the sidelines for the first year of this team,” Hamlin said, “and I mentioned that in the media. They said, ‘We just want to see how it goes and see how the NASCAR fans welcome us.’”
It’s been pretty good so far. Hamlin even acknowledged that if the No. 45 car in the Jordan Brand livery isn’t the top-selling diecast collectible when it comes out, “I’ll be scratching my head. I’m pretty certain it will be.”
Busch’s victory at Kansas was timely on two very different fronts.
The first was within the world of NASCAR, where the 23XI teams had been scuffling lately. Busch had two top-five finishes early in the season, and Wallace was second at the season-opening Daytona 500. But neither had finished in the top 15 in the last four races, which meant a rather unexpected trip to victory lane just in time to rep Jordan Brand.
The second was that 23XI’s triumph came just a day after a racially motivated shooting in a Buffalo supermarket, which once more underscored the deep racial divisions that still exist in the country today.
“It’s sad,” Hamlin said Sunday. “You just kind of think of the families and friends. You just pray for them.”
Then, you do what Jordan and Hamlin have done: You try to change things for the better. In their case, building out a diverse and inclusive racing program. Wallace remains the only fulltime Black drivrer at the top level of NASCAR.
“I’m looking at potential hires right now that we’ve got on the board — there’s England, Brazil and Israel, the next three hires,” Hamlin said. “We’re trying to make a very diverse team. Certainly it’s important to give opportunities to those that never thought racing was a job, a place that they could have a job opportunity.
“I think you have seen diversity on pit road; a lot of these college guys are college D-1 athletes,” Hamlin added. “But what about marketing? What about mechanics? I’m on the NASCAR Diversity Council, and we talk all the time about how can we change this sport. It starts from the ground roots.”
It was a vision that Jordan and Hamlin shared with Busch when they purchased StarCom Racing’s charter, expanded their effort to a two-car team and tried to get the former Cup Series champion to drive for them.
“There’s things that an owner has to go through that are really heavy, and Denny has chosen this ownership role, and he has done it with integrity and class and ambition and motivation,” Busch said. “He called me a year and-a-half ago, two years, and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a plan.’ I was like, ‘If it all works out, I’ll be part of it.’ But wow, just learning some of the things, being close to him as a friend, but also as a racer, and now he is my boss, there’s a lot that goes into ownership.
“This means a lot to me as well,” Busch continued, “because we started this 45 car from scratch, and a lot of the guys, girls, people came from other teams. The spirit was, ‘We’re a bunch of rebels, let’s go do this.’”
Turns out the entire 23XI Racing team are rebels with a cause.
“I’m certainly proud of what we’ve done and how we’ve built this team,” Hamlin said. “It shows that there’s a lot of capable people putting race winning cars on the race track, and you do not have to look a certain way to do it.”
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports