I couldn’t write a NASCAR column this week and not touch on the bombshell that dropped in the Cup Series world Monday night in possibly the most-publicized and exciting driver and owner team since Dale Earnhardt Jr. went to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.
That, of course, was the news that Bubba Wallace will drive for a new Cup team in 2021 that will be jointly owned by current driver of the No. 11 car, Denny Hamlin, and former NBA superstar Michael Jordan. What started as a supposedly off-the-wall rumor turned out to be legitimate, and it answers the question of what the next step is for Wallace, who is arguably the most popular driver on a national scale for NASCAR since the aforementioned Earnhardt Jr. retired.
There will be plenty of time to analyze what this could mean from a racing perspective, as we really have no idea what that will be until we learn more about the new team. What we can discuss is the brilliance of the business side of the deal and how Wallace continues to break barriers in the sport.
Wallace, who will drive what should be the No. 23 car, basically had the pick of the litter as to where he could drive in 2021 after announcing he would leave Richard Petty Motorsports. Sponsors that he brought into the No. 43 team following his step into the national spotlight include Cash App, Columbia apparel and DoorDash, among others, and they are likely to follow Wallace to his new ride. That made him even more of a valuable asset; his career results are impressive in the lower series, and he has done well in the 43 car, despite it being mid-pack in terms of equipment.
It would have been easy for Wallace to step into an already-established team and get results relatively quickly. The No. 42 of Chip Ganassi Racing was offered to him, and he may have been able to sign with Hendrick Motorsports as well, with Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 ride opening up. But Wallace did something he has done before, and something that can be extremely difficult to do – he bet on himself.
There’s no guarantee of success in this new venture. While the team is likely to get some help from Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota, that didn’t mean instant success for Leavine Family Racing, which is shutting down after 2020, and it took time for Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing to succeed with the Toyota/Gibbs affiliation prior to that team’s 2017 title.
Neither Jordan nor Hamlin has owned a team before, and there are no certainties as to who will be coming in to help that team. But Wallace took the sponsorship money and driving skill he has worked so hard to earn and build the team from the ground up; plus, who wouldn’t want to race for Jordan?
What we can learn from Wallace is that we should bet on ourselves and be confident in our abilities when opportunities present themselves. If you don’t bet on yourself, no one else likely will.
Wallace may not be in the 2020 playoffs, but 12 drivers still are, including Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. The former defeated the latter at Bristol in the last race; the No. 4 team earned its ninth win of the season, while the No. 18 team is still winless in 2020.
Despite that, though, I whiffed on calling Rowdy a ‘sell’ last week, and also whiffed on picking 21st-place Denny Hamlin for the win. But, as we enter the second round of the playoffs, also known as the “Round of 12,” the series tackles another trio of tracks before four more drivers are eliminated. This week it’s Las Vegas, followed by Talladega and the Charlotte “Roval” road course/oval hybrid track. The latter two courses are likely the two biggest wild card tracks in the playoffs, making the Las Vegas race vitally important. If you can run well here, it could save you if chaos strikes at the other two races. We’ll stick with the buy and sell options for the Round of 12:
Kevin Harvick: This should be obvious enough. I barely need to speak on how good Harvick’s 2020 has been. The No. 4 team has all the momentum in the world right now and shows absolutely no signs of slowing down.
I’ll list Harvick as a buy mostly for Las Vegas, where he has one of the more up-and-down stat lines over the last few years. Since 2015, when the team hasn’t run into issues during the race, he’s finished top-10 in every race, including and a pair of wins there. The other two races in that span were 38th and 39th-place finishes. The points leader should throw everything at Las Vegas to put themselves into safety, so the team can relax for the two wildest races of the playoffs.
Chase Elliott & Alex Bowman: The two Hendrick Motorsports teammates are grouped here not only because of impressive performances in the Round of 16 but because of their skill at the trio of tracks in the Round of 12. Chase Elliott has three top-10s at Las Vegas sprinkled in between four finishes of 26th or worse, but the No. 9 team will be one of the favorites at both Talladega and the Roval, two races he won in 2019.
Alex Bowman has also run well at those two tracks, finishing second to Elliott in both of those wins, and the No. 88 had the car to win at Las Vegas in February before pitting with Ryan Blaney late in the race. Both drivers are currently above the cutline, but neither has enough of a cushion to relax in this round; they’ll be racing hard to keep their spots there.
Martin Truex Jr.: It was a rough “Round of 16” for the No. 19 team, as, despite the second-place run at Richmond, finishes of 22nd and 24th in the other two races did nothing to help them. At Las Vegas, I wouldn’t write off Martin Truex Jr. entirely, as, before a 20th place there in February, he had five consecutive top-five finishes there, including two wins.
The sell rating for this round is mostly for Talladega and the Roval. Truex has never won at a superspeedway nor the Roval, and losing momentum in the playoffs as he has is extremely difficult to come back from. The deeper we get into the playoffs, the harder it gets to find true sell candidates, but Truex is most likely to deviate from the expectation in this round.
Aric Almirola & Clint Bowyer: Grouping together another teammate duo, this time from Stewart-Haas Racing, the No. 10 and 14 teams will fall victim to the increased competition and decreased playoff positions in this round. That’s not to say they didn’t have good runs in the first round; in fact, neither of them finished outside the top-10 at all.
It’s the variety of tracks in this round that will hurt them, as well as the fact that someone else will likely win at Las Vegas, leaving both of these drivers without the automatic advancement and in the danger zone for the wild card races. Both Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer are outside the cutline at the start of the round, and I anticipate them both being there at the end of it.
This Week’s Pick
Kevin Harvick: I genuinely want this to go another way, but my gut tells me Harvick grabs the win and leaves everyone behind him scrambling to earn points to join him in the next round.
Kyle Busch, Alex Bowman & Austin Dillon: While Busch said “we’ll be eliminated” in this round, winning at his home track is more likely than he thinks; Bowman’s regaining his speed at these tracks and will just need luck to go his way; Dillon will look to have lightning strike twice to repeat the magic of his Texas win and continue to be the surprise of the playoffs.
Who Won’t Make it Through the Round of 12?
Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Austin Dillon & Kurt Busch