DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — What if I told you five years ago that Tony Stewart would be at the NHRA season opener as a team owner, Emmitt Smith would be at the NASCAR Xfinity Series also as a team owner and Floyd Mayweather, Michael Jordan and Pitbull would be at the Daytona 500 as ownership roles on NASCAR Cup Series teams?
Here we are though. All happened. Sunday’s 64th annual Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN) doesn’t lack the star power. The race is completely sold out. No tickets left. The Fan Zone access is full. Suites and hospitality tickets are gone. Camping infield and out is sold. All 101,500 grandstand seats will be filled too.
NASCAR is booming again and the season opener on Sunday will have nothing short of major storylines. Among the tops?
The new teams.
12 months ago was the debut of Trackhouse Racing and 23XI Racing. Pitbull and Michael Jordan would attend their first Daytona 500’s as stakeholders in the sport. Now, a year later, not only are they back but they’ve each expanded. Both are two car teams now and in the sense of Trackhouse, they’ve bought out Chip Ganassi Racing, moved into their shop and have plenty of assets to make this work for the future.
“This is just a vision kind of coming together,” Marks said. “I mean, this has been in the works for probably really two years now. So for us to be able to put all the pieces together, to stay steadfastly committed to that vision and the goal of what we’re trying to build, to see it all come together here as we prepare to get ready for the Daytona 500 is pretty awesome, pretty special.”
That’s the same vision that both Suarez and Pitbull feel as well. They each feel like the best sport to grow this vision for the Latin American population is NASCAR in fact.
“NASCAR has no limits,” Suarez said. “Already we want to make this sport as wide as possible. We are not just talking about Mexico. We’re not just talking about Latin America. We’re talking about worldwide. Actually that’s Pitbull’s nickname, Mr. Worldwide. So why not?
“Pitbull is a Latino, like myself. I was amazed to know that his biggest fan base is actually not in the United States or not in Latin America. That tells you how big his impact that he’s going to be able to get for this racing, for this organization. Hopefully we can do an amazing things together.”
Both teams missed the playoffs last year but both also feel like they can get all of their cars in this year’s field though too.
“I think a goal for us to have both cars in the Playoffs,” Denny Hamlin said of 23XI Racing. “I think Bubba (Wallace) isn’t far off from that. It’s one DNF away – when you look at the standings of who is a contender to beat. I remember last year we were talking with two races to go from the Playoffs – two or three races to go – and it was like ‘We’re 30 points behind. That’s not that much.’ It’s not that much. You can gain a couple spots a week and on average change a drivers finish from 20th to 18th and you’re there. It’s not that much and you really won’t see that much but yet you’ll see a big change in the standings. That’s just the way our sport works.
“I think in general the average finish of the field is going to go up this year. Maybe not for the guys in the back who ran in the back pretty much every week, but really, you’re top 10 I would say in average finish probably will go up at least a few points than where we’ve been in the past just because of mechanical failures, wrecks, all those things will be up dramatically this year. It will be important to finish races and finish to the best of your ability and not stretching for one point and then making a mistake and losing 20.”
Kurt Busch was signed by 23XI Racing to come in and help this team grow further. He says that they set their expectations very high, and that they have every ambition and every bit of focus and intensity to achieve those goals.
“Winning races, both cars in the Playoffs and for us making a run through the Playoffs to have a shot at the final four, that’s what we want to do on the 45 car,” said the 2004 series champion. “There’s no reason to think that we can’t with the information sharing and the technology that we have with Toyota. The notebook that nobody has right now. It’s a clean slate and we build from ground zero.
“Right now, we’re tied for the lead in points, and we intend to work all the way through the first couple months with a points-building frame of mind. It reminds me of 2019 when I switched to Ganassi. My goal was to get as many points early in the year and it gave you this free mindset of relaxness in the summer months because we knew we were pretty much guaranteed a spot in the Playoffs.
“Dave Rogers has been a huge addition as a Performance Director for 23XI. (Mike) Wheels (Wheeler) has found his role as the Competition Director. Between those two guys and the two crew chiefs, with Billy Scott and Bootie Barker. I’m not just name dropping. We’ve got the right guys in the right places to gather the information from JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) and work with them and Toyota to make a good run at this in 2022.”
Busch, is already impressed with how well he and Bubba Wallace are working together.
“As a teammate he’s a listener and he’s eager to learn,” he said. “That’s what any young driver should be doing. It’s funny on how the information is being thrown at him and he goes, ‘Hey man. Is this something that’s serious that I need to look at? Or is this something that Denny (Hamlin) is going overload on for data information?” And, I said that’s a perfect question because Denny is such an analytical numbers guy. He will eat, sleep and chew on them until it turns into a pole.
“Bubba (Wallace) and his level and my level, we’re all working together to find that right stream. This weekend is a great weekend to let everybody use their talent with feeling the air, seeing the air and then digesting the information and reporting back on how each session went. It’s just putting in that next level effort and Bubba is ready to do that and I see it within him.”
Busch says that the team is locked in. The first time he met Michael Jordan he knew this was the place for him.
“It was right when my window opened to contract negotiations,” said Busch. “It was an awesome moment of seeing him in a board room and walking up to him to shake his hand. He stood up and then he sits down and he’s in charge of the room. It was within two minutes he says, ‘We will win together.’ That was the easiest conversation I’ve ever had with a team owner to know that we’re on the same page on day one.”
Busch also credits the team president Steve Lauletta who he says has done an incredible job of assembling a really strong team on the marketing side, on the social side and the management of the accounts.
“We’ve announced with Monster Energy close to 30 races on my race car. McDonalds will be on my race car later this year. MoneyLion, SiriusXM, it just continues to build. And, to have these blue-chip companies and brands being announced to be with our team at 23XI, it helps all of these crew members know that they made the right decision to jump on board and be a part of this program. The buzz, the energy, it’s all there and just like I said at the beginning of this conference, it was great to just give Billy Scott (crew chief) a hug and say, ‘Hey, man. Put your crew chief hat on. We’re going to do this driver, crew chief stuff now.’ Everything is in place and I’m really happy with the way our season is going to look in the next few weeks.”
Wallace shares the same goals too.
“Obviously, we want to make the Playoffs and compete for a championship” he said. “That’s a given. For us, it’s just trying to be consistent. We had a lot of finishes where it was – win at Talladega, I think after that was the Roval next, so you were kind of back-and-forth. It’s smoothing out the graph on the result chart is important to us to bring that graph lower and lower.
“It’s something we are just going to fight for each and every week – be more competitive, be more consistent to get that speed up and figure out this new car. Everybody is figuring out this new car but making sure we are on the upper tier of those who figure it out first so we can have that advantage. It will take a lot of hard work from myself and my team, but Bootie (Barker, crew chief) and I know that what we have to do is go out and win races and be the best that we can be. Somedays we can go and show up and be a fifth-place car, sometimes we might show up and be a 15th-place car. We just have to take what we can give us and make the most of those days.”
These aren’t the only new teams too. GMS merged with Petty and formed a two-car team. Kaulig is here with two full-time cars. NY Racing Team and The Money Team make their debuts on Sunday.
“This is huge for The Money Team Racing, huge for Floyd, for Pit Viper,” TMT driver Kaz Grala said after making his way in via the Duels on Thursday night. “This mattered a lot to us. There really was no option but to make this race. This is why we did what we did was to race in the Daytona 500. We didn’t come into this week ready to accept any other fate.
“It’s big for us being a new team to be able to do this. It’s huge financially. It’s huge exposure, the marketing. We want to run a part-time schedule this year. We want to try to run some of the road courses, maybe some of the closer, less-traveled races. To have a good showing like this and to hopefully have a good showing on Sunday will go a long way towards helping build this program into what they aspire to be, a full-time opportunity, and I’d love to stick with them for that.”
Another partial new team is RFK Racing. Roush Fenway has been around for decades but Brad Keselowski left Team Penske to join the team that has lacked success for a while now to be a driver/owner.
Keselowski and his teammate Chris Buescher took the checkered flags in the Bluegreen Duels at Daytona on Thursday night. These were the first victories for the organization in nearly five years.
“It’s just really good,” Keselowski said of his win. “It’s just so important. There’s a lot of guys and gals on my team that have never won a race before. The company hasn’t won a race in five, six years now, five and a half, something like that. That’s any kind of race.
“It’s really important to get that winning habit built up, and the only way you can really do that is to go win. That builds confidence in each other and builds expectations. Not just the expectations, that’s probably not the right word, it builds a reality that those expectations can happen. We had a really poor showing at the Clash, and we needed something to offset that, and this is a great offset for that.”
Sunday further shifts NASCAR to a new era for the sport. A much brighter one too.