By Seth Eggert, Staff Writer
Although the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season has the hallmarks of being a career year for Bubba Wallace, the 23XI Racing driver is keeping his expectations modest.
Wallace is entering the fourth full season of Cup Series competition in 2021. During the off-season he moved from Richard Petty Motorsports to the Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan-owned 23XI Racing. While the team is new, it has an alliance with Toyota Racing powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing. 23XI Racing also inherited crew members from Leavine Family Racing.
To date, Wallace has improved each season. In his rookie year, 2018, the Mobile, AL native had one top-five and three top-10 finishes with an average finish of 24.5. The 2020 season saw Wallace earn one top-five, five top-10s, and an average finish of 21.1.
“Just continuing to grow from the seasons that I’ve had,” Wallace explained his expectations for 2021. “Last year I think we kept getting better and better. Do I expect to jump in and win right off the bat? No, not at all. I know the sport, if it was that easy, a lot of people would be doing it, but it’s not that easy. The competition that we go up against it’s tougher than it’s ever been. So, I’m excited to get under way and just see where we stack up.”
Though 23XI Racing has the resources to be a winning organization, Wallace recognizes that it will take time for the team to reach that potential. The No. 23 DoorDash Toyota Camry will have a charter acquired from Germain Racing. The charter 23XI Racing inherits finished 27th in the owner standings last year.
23XI Racing is not the only new team joining the Cup Series grid in 2021. Trackhouse Racing and Live Fast Motorsports will also be preparing for the gauntlet of races at the beginning of the season.
“We start to build a resume at Daytona and build off that and continue to get better for our team,” Wallace stated. “It’s going to take a couple of races, just like any new team will to get everything underneath us. Then once we get going and get a couple of races under our belts, we can really start to pinpoint our weaknesses or our strong points. Then we can build off those, grow, and learn from everything.”
Moving from the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 to the 23XI Racing No. 23, Wallace will likely move further up the grid. Competing on a more regular basis with NASCAR champions like Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, and others will be a different experience. than drivers further down the grid. The 27-year-old expects the racing to be more difficult.
He has experienced that in several Cup races previously. In the regular season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2019, Wallace was one of the faster cars on track. In his No. 43 World Wide Technology Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, he ran inside the top-five throughout much of the race before finishing third.
“I think I look at the races that we had driving the 43, the races where we were running up front and competing,” Wallace explained. “We were strong. I look at Indy two years ago and even last year, I know how to race against those guys. Do they expect me to be up there? No. And do they race me differently because of it? Yes.
“I think that’s the biggest things that’s going to change for other drivers. It’s going to, hopefully it’s like, ‘Okay, this kid, this guy, whatever, they call me, whatever, knows what he’s doing up here. We have to race him a little bit different.’ I’m not expecting it be a cake walk at all. We’re there to race and race hard. That’s what I’m looking forward to the most is having more of those runs in the top 10 each and every week, showing that we’re a factor and able to contend for wins. Just go out and have fun and do the best that we can.”
Despite openly expecting the racing to get harder, Wallace has set a personal goal for the 2021 season. The winner of the 2020 NMPA Pocono Spirit Award hopes to be able to earn his first two victories in the Cup Series. Wallace has six victories in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
Wallace came to winning in the Cup Series on a couple of occasions. In addition to his top-five at Indianapolis, he finished runner-up in the 2018 Daytona 500. Wallace nearly pulled off the upset in the regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway last year. He briefly took the lead in the closing laps before contact set off ‘the big one.’
“I feel like people are writing 23XI Racing, two wins … that’s a personal goal for me. Knowing the success of Toyota, knowing the success with JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing), there’s a lot more opportunity than I’ve had in recent years to go out and compete. Knowing our cars, the hours that are going into it, the manufacturing that’s going into it, there’s no reason why we can’t go out and just compete.”
23XI Racing will make its’ on-track debut with Ty Dillon in the Busch Clash. Wallace was not eligible for the Clash and will make his debut with the team in the Daytona 500.
Feature Photo Credit: NKP / NKP Photo