When he was just a driver, Denny Hamlin could count on having a few days off during the week before heading to the track.
But after teaming with Michael Jordan to form 23XI Racing – one of three new teams in the NASCAR Cup Series garage – those off days are now focused on talking with 23XI personnel and figuring out how to make Bubba Wallace‘s No. 23 Toyota faster.
There’s also the matter of Wallace himself.
The 27-year-old may not have race-winning equipment yet, but he does have the best equipment of his career.
“This is such a growing process for everyone,” Hamlin said Sunday after his third-place finish at Phoenix Raceway. “Everyone is working together for the first time. This is a new team. This is not an inherited team. This is a team built from scratch.
“It’s a building process. They’re trying not to overload Bubba with too much information, because he’s got already so much he has to learn on a weekly basis. I try to do everything I can to help curb that learning curve. If I can help him out, give him some advice on a track that’s coming up, some notes out of the book that I keep, maybe it’s a help to him.”
MORE: Bubba Wallace next up for Next Gen testing at Richmond
On Sunday, Wallace was in position to claim his first top-10 finish with his new team when a crash involving Tyler Reddick brought out the caution with 50 laps to go.
Having pitted 10 laps earlier, Wallace was told to stay out by crew chief Mike Wheeler and inherit the lead as those ahead of him pitted. On the subsequent restart with 44 laps to go, Wallace appeared to spin his tires.
After initially recovering to hang on to third place, Wallace quickly faded and fell out of the top 10. He finished 16th.
Wheeler later explained why he kept Wallace on track during the Reddick caution.
Why we stayed out: 7 laps on tires, newest of anyone. P10 of 22 cars on the lead lap. Earlier in race with similar position, it was split who pitted vs stayed. And no one on tires drove to the lead. We were on the same page to stay. It didn't work out. And yes my head hurts.
— Michael Wheeler (@MikeCWheeler) March 14, 2021
Through five races, Wallace sits 19th in the Cup driver standings, top-ranked among the new teams. He has not scored any stage points since the season-opening Daytona 500.
But Sunday was still something to build on for himself and 23XI.
Improving. Showed some serious speed this past weekend, and great first outing with the @McDonalds colors on board! Gaining experience with the new team and starting to really fill out our notepad. 🤘🏽 pic.twitter.com/KYkxliU7kA
— Bubba Wallace (@BubbaWallace) March 15, 2021
As for the other new teams, Trackhouse Racing – led by co-owners Justin Marks and Pitbull and driver Daniel Suarez – continues to try and unlock its own potential.
Suarez, a past winner at Phoenix in the Camping World Truck Series and Mexico Series, finished 21st Sunday. In post-race inspection, the car was found with two lug nuts not secure.
That spells a one-race suspension and $20,000 fine for crew chief Travis Mack. He will be one of two crew chiefs suspended for next week’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“I felt like the car was decent the majority of the race,” Suarez said of his day. “The car was driving pretty good. I was pretty happy with the balance of the car on the long run. The short run wasn’t that great. We made some adjustments in the last 80 laps, and I wasn’t very happy with it. But, all-in-all, (I’m) really proud of my guys and we have to keep getting better.”
Suarez is 24th in the Cup standings. His 15th-place finish at Miami is the best among the new teams through five races.
Live Fast Motorsports, co-owned by BJ McLeod and Matt Tifft, also is trying to make gains week to week. Their No. 78 Ford, which has been driven by McLeod in four of the first five races, is 34th in the Cup owners standings.
McLeod finished 30th in Sunday’s race. His 23rd-place finish in the Daytona 500 is the team’s best result so far.
JTG Daugherty progress
JTG Daugherty Racing has become a fixture in the upper mid-pack through the first five races. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s 12th-place finish on Sunday was the team’s sixth top-15 result this season. Last year, the team had one such finish in the first five races.
“It would take a few laps for our car to come in, and with the couple of cautions we had in the middle of the race, it made it tough to get that longer run where we had really strong speed,” Stenhouse said. “Once that came in, we were able to keep pushing forward to gain and keep our track position.
“Being consistent has been really key early in the season as we have a variety of racetracks and that was definitely the best run at Phoenix Raceway than I’ve had in several years. I’m looking forward to keeping the momentum going next weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.”
Both Stenhouse and teammate Ryan Preece have earned three top 15s apiece, with Stenhouse’s top 15s coming in consecutive weeks.
Stenhouse and Preece also sit inside the top 15 in average finish, with Stenhouse at 14.4 and Preece at 15.4. At this time last year, those marks were 21st for Stenhouse (DNF – Darlington) and 26.8 for Preece (two DNFs – Daytona 500, Las Vegas).
Finally, Stenhouse and Preece are more familiar sights in the top 15 on the track.
Stenhouse has spent 57.1% of his laps in the top 15. At this time last year, he had only spent 22.7% of his laps there.
Preece has also made gains. He’s spent 29.2% of his laps in the top 15, up from 13.9% at this time last year.
A father’s (tough) love
As his son, Ty Gibbs, began focusing on racing in his early teens, Coy Gibbs focused on instilling the discipline he knew Ty would need down the road.
“I’d say my work was done between (when Ty was) the age of 12 and 14, probably 12 and 15,” the vice chairman and COO of Joe Gibbs Racing recalled on Sunday.
“I was really hard on him, as hard as you possibly could be. My approach is you’re going to have to face the pressure sooner or later, so I might as well apply it as hard as I possibly can.
“Then at 14, 14-and-a-half, I completely backed off and left him on his own so he could kind of go through it … I don’t want to sit there and handhold the kid. He doesn’t need it.”
Ty Gibbs certainly hasn’t in his first two Xfinity Series starts.
After winning in his inaugural Xfinity start last month at the Daytona road course, the 18-year-old was in contention for another victory Saturday at Phoenix before finishing second to Austin Cindric.
He still left the Valley of the Sun with a trophy, however. He won Friday night’s race in the ARCA Menards Series, where he runs full-time. Last year, he led that series with six wins.
“Watching him grow as a driver … You think he’s pretty good, but you don’t really know,” Coy Gibbs said. “Then you start throwing him in these divisions, and he’s performing.
“It’s exciting to watch. It’s exciting as a father.”
Ty Gibbs has already reached a level that neither his father or Coy’s brother, the late J.D. Gibbs, could in their own driving careers. Both Coy and J.D. Gibbs competed in the Xfinity and Truck Series, but neither won.
While J.D. only made limited appearances, Coy ran full-time for Joe Gibbs Racing in the 2001 and 2002 Truck seasons before moving to Xfinity for what would be his sole season there in 2003.
Along with the discipline he taught Ty growing up, Coy Gibbs believes that he’s also benefited from learning from his and J.D.’s travails.
“I think it helps watching my brother go through it, screw it all up, watching myself go through it, screw it all up,” Coy said.
“I feel like I can at least help guide his path a little bit. Hopefully, he can be successful at it.”