NASCAR’s Next-Gen initiative is so much more than just cars and schedules.
It’s a matter of identity.
From that perspective, nothing could be more impactful than the arrival of Michael Jordan as a Cup Series team owner — the NBA legend revealing on Monday night that he was joining forces with Denny Hamlin to provide what is intended to become a competitive opportunity for Bubba Wallace.
The sport’s ownership contingency is currently comprised of 83-year-old Roger Penske, 79-year-old Joe Gibbs, 78-year-old Jack Roush and 71-year-old Rick Hendrick.
At 57, Michael Jordan represents the next generation of NASCAR ownership, with something close to the same kind of reputation of excellence that Gibbs brought to NASCAR after winning three Super Bowls.
Unlike Gibbs, however, Jordan transcends sports and entertainment.
Remember the earliest days of the pandemic, a few weeks before the return of live sports, when ‘The Last Dance’ became the television event of the spring? Even 20 years after his retirement, Air Jordan remains the most iconic brand in competition and MJ is bringing that spotlight to NASCAR.
It’s difficult to imagine this coming together before 2020.
The world is changing, and NASCAR has been at the forefront of that societal growth, even if it hasn’t always been a seamless process.
NASCAR banned the Confederate Flag in June, weathered a storm brought about by a real concern for Wallace’s safety when a noose was discovered in his garage stall two weeks later at Talladega, and banded around the sport’s only full-time Black driver as he began to utilize his platform to advocate for diversity, equality and inclusion.
This all happened simultaneously with Wallace navigating his own free agency and working to secure a cache of sponsorship needed to propel his career to the next level. In all likelihood, Wallace has found a benefactor capable of getting him there.
Michael Jordan is a billionaire — emphasis on the ‘B.’
Jordan isn’t here to make a small fortune in racing. As the old adage goes, the best way to make one is to start with a bigger one.
He has that.
Jordan and Hamlin believe that Wallace can win races and compete for a championship, while carrying the banner for social change, something each of the three passionately believe in. This is an opportunity at sporting history and this new team will pursue it endlessly.
If we learned nothing else from ‘The Last Dance,’ it’s that Jordan will not rest until he wins. Merriam-Webster surely has a picture of MJ next to the definition for ‘competitor.’
This isn’t likely to be an overnight success story, because so few things in motorsports are. However, this team will be immediately attractive to free agent crew chiefs, engineers, tire specialists and everyone from any facet of the business of making cars go fast.
Money buys speed, and again, this is a billionaire with a ‘B.’
And while the first season in a lame duck chassis might be a struggle, the Next-Gen car in 2022 will serve as the great equalizer for everyone, and Wallace will be as poised as anyone to capitalize on the new landscape.
For the first time in his career, Bubba Wallace should have everything he needs to consistently compete with the likes of Gibbs, Hendrick and Penske.
The rest will be up to Wallace and the decisions he makes behind the steering wheel.
Should he win, Wallace would become only the second Black driver to do so at the highest level of the discipline after Wendell Scott in 1963. The NASCAR industry still hasn’t completely overcome the stigma associated with how it treated Scott.
NASCAR has only just begun to erase the perceived inclusion problems of a sport that should be welcome to everyone.
And that’s what this is ultimately about.
Wallace climbing out of his No. 23 and embracing Jordan in Victory Lane would be so much more than a personal achievement for either of them. It would be the embodiment of everything that the NASCAR community has strived towards over the past six months.
It’s one thing for NASCAR president Steve Phelps to say NASCAR wants everyone from all walks of life to enjoy his league. It was a bigger thing for the entire garage to stand behind Wallace during pre-race introductions prior to Talladega.
It is immediately a goal realized to have The Michael Jordan heed that call and open the doors for an entire subset of sports fans who may have been hesitant to give NASCAR a shot.
So, while NASCAR Next-Gen is absolutely about adding short tracks and road courses to the schedule, and racing on them with cost-effective new bodies and chassis, it’s also about who will be watching them do so.
Michael Jordan is one of the biggest names in pop culture. A documentary about his final championship with the Chicago Bulls was consumed by an average of 5.6 million people. Where Air Jordan goes, eyeballs immediately follow.
This is NASCAR Next-Gen personified.
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