Hamlin: 23XI Racing drop ‘not acceptable in any way’

Jared C. Tilton |  fake images

Jared C. Tilton | fake images

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Two organizations entered the NASCAR Cup Series as single-car operations last year, expanding to two-car fleets this season.

One is Trackhouse Racing, which has taken flight in 2022 with drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez. The other is 23XI Racing, the Michael Jordan-Denny Hamlin-owned supergroup that has encountered significant growth problems in expansion.

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Hamlin eliminated his own teething problems last weekend at Richmond Raceway, scoring his first Cup Series victory of the season with a late-race surge in his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing. But then he checked on the status of the two pilots of 23XI: Bubba Wallace in 26; Kurt Busch in 35. His place in the standings, not much better: Busch 18, Wallace 22.

“I mean, again, just trying to stop the bleeding there,” Hamlin said during Friday’s activity at Martinsville Speedway. “…I said earlier this week, you know, it’s just the win was really exciting until you get out of the car, you look down and you’re like, ‘what (expletive), like, what’s going on?’ But it’s just, it’s hectic because it’s different things on different teams. But it’s just a two-week slump that we have to get out of.”

Those two weeks have been filled with difficulties, beginning at the Circuit of the Americas. Busch crashed the No. 45 Toyota and Wallace’s No. 23 Camry lost a wheel, dropping both out of the top 30 in the order of finish. Busch’s hopes of recovery were dashed at Richmond, where a mechanical problem sent the No. 45 behind the wall for lengthy repairs. He finished 109 laps off the pace.

Wallace has had 13 points in the last two races; Busch only seven. On Friday at Martinsville, Hamlin examined the problem, team by team.

“We’re trying to address all the issues that exist,” Hamlin said. “Car 23 is that the pit crew is not doing well. You know, I’m in a meeting with Joe Gibbs Racing, and I thank them for everything they do for me, and then we go from that meeting to another and I curse them, because we’re just not doing a good job there. So it’s a very interesting thing that happens, but that’s part of it.

“And then the weird thing that happens with the 45. We have a new sponsor there, and the car is in the garage for 100 laps. So it’s just, it’s hectic, but it’s…hopefully, we’ll look back two months from now and say, it’s just a little bump in the road, because it’s certainly not acceptable in any way.”

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Busch joined 23XI this year as the team moved to add a veteran presence with the pedigree of a former champion. In fact, he posted consecutive top-five finishes (fifth at Phoenix, third at Atlanta) in the two races before his losing streak.

The Monday after Richmond, he posted a self-deprecating video clip featuring an Animal House rallying cry. On Friday at Martinsville, she struck a tone of hope that the worst of the team’s misfortune might be behind them.

“I look at it as, okay, the driver can make a mistake once, the pit crew can make a mistake once, I can have a mechanical gremlin. We’re done with all of that now,” Busch said. “So we definitely have to put together nice and consistent races in practice, stages and the end of the race. We’ve already been through a lot as a new team with top 5 finishes, laps led, mechanical issues, so we’re ticking all the boxes.

Wallace, who brought 23XI his first Cup Series win last year at Talladega, has been downhill this season since finishing second in the Daytona 500. He led 12 laps that opening day and has led just three since. But like Busch, he struggled to remain optimistic even as he slipped down the standings.

“It’s just mistakes that happen that we have to fix,” Wallace said. “Racing teams make mistakes. We seem to have a little more than others at the moment, but it’s still early in the season. We will be fine.”