Bubba Wallace’s profile never higher thanks to alliance with Jordan

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Entering the weekend, Michael Jordan’s basketball team is seventh in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. His race team is 19th in the NASCAR Cup points standings. Obviously, His Airness has work to do on multiple fronts.

Put the Charlotte Hornets aside for a moment. With Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, it’s NASCAR’s most interesting, eclectic race team that is of more immediate local interest.

On the ownership side there is the NBA’s G.O.A.T., who while growing up in North Carolina apparently inhaled some second-hand interest in racin’. Partnering with Jordan is the pole-sitter in Sunday’s race, three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin. How someone can drive for one team and own another is just one of the many quirks of this sport.

In the driver’s seat of the – obviously – No. 23 car is the circuit’s only Black driver, the man who was the center of much attention last year as the social-justice pot boiled, Bubba Wallace.

Ain’t an org chart like that anywhere else in the sport.

Through five races beneath this new umbrella, Wallace arrives in Atlanta only a little better off than the team he left (Petty Motorsports’ Erik Jones is 23rd in points). The breaking-in process hasn’t always gone smoothly, as when assorted mechanical issues led to a 28th-place finish in Las Vegas two weeks ago.

Still, the honeymoon period persists. Thus far, working for and with Jordan has been all good. After all, he’s Michael Freaking Jordan. The perks include an overflowing closet. Hamlin said he now has a couple of hundred pairs of Jordan shoes at home and in storage. “They’re almost like investments at this point,” he said. Between Jordan and sponsor Columbia Sportswear, Wallace said most of his casual dress needs are met.

And the 27-year-old Wallace, in his fourth year of full-time Cup racing, with no wins and three top-five finishes in 117 races to show for it, has never enjoyed a higher racing profile than now that he is associated with Jordan.

“He’s a huge motorsports fan, a big NASCAR fan, has been for a long time,” Wallace said this week of his boss. “You hear him talk about it all the time. Having him invested and committed to our team and to what we have going on is incredible. I remember meeting him for the first time, I was taken back a little bit – this is MJ. I don’t get star struck or excited over much, but sitting there talking to Michael Jordan is pretty cool.”

“He’s tuned in each and every day wondering why or how or what went on, giving our praises when it’s needed,” Wallace said of Jordan’s input.

No signs of impatience yet, he said. And the boss seems in no hurry to get chauffeured for a few laps around the track just to see what life at 170 mph is like. “Not yet,” Wallace said. “We got to build a special car, he’s pretty big.”

More to the point now is Wallace’s ability to take a next big step up and show himself capable of winning at this level.

He is in the unique position of potentially widening the NASCAR fan base. Wallace’s relationship with racing’s established following is complicated. He was front and center last year with support of the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the call to ban displays of the Confederate flag at races. The discovery of a pull-cord shaped like a noose in his garage at Talladega last summer launched an FBI hate-crime investigation (it was determined the cord had been like that for months). Through it all, he worked through a quite simple mantra: “Peace. Love. Understanding.”

He’s not shy about sparring with his detractors on social media, as demonstrated as recently as this week. On Wednesday, as he tested the so-called Next Gen car that is to be rolled out in 2022, somewhere out there in the ether certain snarky comments erupted about the probability of him crashing the prototype. His response on Twitter: “Apologies to all the peeps I let down – Next Gen car put away without a scratch.”

At the same time, Wallace understands the possibilities here of bringing in a slightly more diverse audience, especially if he could win with Jordan behind him.

“I get comments that there are people watching for the first time because of me and what we’re doing,” Wallace said. “That’s pretty cool, pretty humbling for sure.

“It goes back to I never set out to be an activist, or whatever you want to call it, an advocate for change. I’m just doing what’s right. The good people, the people who have a decent mindset behind them, latch onto that and see that. There’s nothing extra you have to do, just be a good human being. It will carry you a long way.”

Given his ownership, a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing and his own deepening well of experience, Wallace plainly states he has everything he needs to win. “I recognized that once the dotted line was signed,” he said.

Now, just go do it. “I’ve talked about no more excuses, that was my motto for this year. I can’t blame why we’re not running good on certain things. Everything is there. It ultimately falls back on me,” he said.

Wallace is coming off his best finish of the year, a 16th at Phoenix, sensing what he called “a lot of positive vibes from that and a lot of good momentum.”

“He’s doing well,” Hamlin said last week. “It’s been really unfortunate with some of the circumstances (as in Las Vegas), they never really got to show what they had.”

“We’ve got to make sure we’re doing everything we can as a team to provide them with good race cars, from JGR to us. “Hopefully they’re getting rid of these new team blues, and they’re going to get to where they have some clean green races where they don’t have any issues, and we really get to analyze where they’re at.”

What then, might be Hamlin’s idea of a perfect Sunday be, given that he is driving a Gibbs car and Wallace competes in one he owns, along with Jordan? Wallace breaking through in Atlanta would be such a momentous story for the sport.

Nevertheless, “It’s definitely me first and him second, for sure,” said Hamlin, the driver inside him overpowering the owner.