Michael Jordan's Daytona 500 debut was as astonishing as his free-throw dunk

Michael Jordan's Daytona 500 debut was as astonishing as his free-throw dunk

The Bulls legend and Bubba Wallace’s black-owned team broke barriers in a sport with a history of intolerance. But Nascar’s redemption is not complete

Bubba Wallace’s No 23 car leads the field during Sunday’s Daytona 500
Bubba Wallace’s No 23 car leads the field during Sunday’s Daytona 500. Photograph: Mark J Rebilas/USA Today Sports

With one lap left in Sunday’s Daytona 500, Bubba Wallace made his move. Pinned behind 15 cars arranged in a neat row on the top groove of Daytona’s 2.5-mile oval, Wallace charged into the bottom lane behind Kevin Harvick in hope of running down race leader Joey Logano. Just when Wallace appeared to be gathering steam – disaster. Brad Keselowski, jostled by an extra-hard shove from Michael McDowell, rocketed him into Logano’s left-side rear bumper, triggering a multicar pile-up. Wallace might have snuck through if Logano’s windmilling Ford hadn’t hit his Toyota flush on the nose. In the end Wallace finished a fiery 17th while McDowell stole the checkered flag under caution. Needless to say, you can expect Michael Jordan to take this personally.

Besides maybe Harry and Meghan, you would be hard pressed to name another couple people are rooting harder for than Jordan and Wallace – Nascar’s new racing royalty. Wallace is the supremely gifted Nascar driver who happens to be an anti-racism trailblazer. And Jordan is a lifelong racing fan who finally has some skin in the game after decades of fence sitting. Last September they would make their relationship official, forming a single-car operation called 23XI Racing (pronounced twenty-three eleven). Wallace signed on as a free agent, Jordan as a co-owner alongside the veteran Cup driver and longtime Jordan Brand ambassador Denny Hamlin. Together, Jordan and Wallace give Nascar folk not one but two black friends to point to the next time the sport’s grim track record of intolerance is challenged.

After all it wasn’t that long before the announcement of this new “Dream Team” that we heard Kyle Larson, the half-Japanese-American star of Nascar’s driver diversity program, casually drop the n-word during an online race. After being deserted by all his sponsors and booted from his Cup drive, Larson spent the next 10 months in exile undergoing diversity training as he continued to earn a comfortable living racing dirt track events – only to wind up in a better Nascar Cup seat with Hendrick Motorsports last October.

In a pre-race interview with FS1’s Emmanuel Acho on Sunday, Larson pleaded ignorance to the slur while blaming a small circle of friends for “allowing myself to be comfortable enough with that group to say it.” Pressed on whether these were Nascar folk he was referring to, Larson, finally, was unequivocal. “Oh no, not at all in Nascar,” he said. “I think racing in general has maybe had that reputation, but I don’t believe that to be true. In the last 10 months or so, we’ve seen a lot of change in the sport.”

And while it’s true that hip hop and black athlete interviewers crept into Fox’s Daytona telecast, Pitbull owns a stake in the team fronted by Mexico-born driver Daniel Suarez, and the WWE’s Sasha Banks green-flagged Sunday’s race, the fundamental change in this Nascar season boils down to the two absurdly qualified black men who must still prove they belong.

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AN ABSOLUTELY WILD FINISH TO THE #DAYTONA500

Michael McDowell walks away with the win, everyone in the crash managed to exit their cars safely.

(🎥: @NASCAR) pic.twitter.com/bBuR1HJ49J

February 15, 2021

Wallace of course persuaded Nascar to ban displays of the Confederate flag, only to find a noose in his garage – an incident many maintain was a hoax despite Nascar and the FBI’s grave reactions. And then there’s the matter of Wallace racing in Cup in the first place, what with only four top-ten finishes in his first two years racing primarily for the famed Richard Petty. Last year, though, he distinguished himself as the kind of consistent challenger who could lead races with better equipment – and all while stepping outside his low-key personality to tear down America’s most stubborn symbol of white supremacy, even as the US president denounced him. Now on a far better resourced team in 23XI, it won’t be enough for Wallace to just keep up with traffic anymore. His haters will pounce if he falls even a little bit short of the realistic expectations set by his insanely competitive boss.

Likewise, Jordan has felt more compelled to give voice – and money – to righteous political causes in ways he never had before. Throwing his support behind the only black driver in Nascar’s top level is not only consistent with his evolved thinking, but also his penchant for huge gambles. But this one may be his riskiest yet. A number of famous black athletes have tried fielding racing teams only to see those efforts crash and burn: Tim Brown. Jackie Joyner-Kersee. In the late-90s, Jordan’s idol, Julius Erving, partnered with former NFL running back Joe Washington to launch a Cup team. But the effort never took shape as Erving and Washington mostly failed to marshal sponsorship. In 1998 they turned up at Daytona with a Busch Series car and struggled to make subsequent races. Two years later they were out of business.

Jordan, however, doesn’t figure to go away as meekly. For one thing he’s a billionaire and the owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets to boot. For another he’s not starting a team from scratch as much as he is fronting a sister team of Joe Gibbs Racing, a perennial Cup favorite with considerable resources to bear – not least a technical alliance with Toyota. Not long after Wallace signed on the dotted line, McDonald’s, Columbia Sportswear and DoorDash followed suit. In a pre-race interview with Fox Sports’ Michael Strahan, Jordan said he believed Wallace could win “at least a couple races”. Until then the scrutiny on their No 23 car risks reaching Danica Patrick levels of intensity.

Doubtless, Wallace’s haters were encouraged to see the 23XI car get off to an Erving-like start on Sunday. After qualifying a career-high sixth at Daytona, Wallace was sent to the back of the grid after his Toyota repeatedly failed inspection and risked being scratched from the race altogether. But a route to victory looked possible after a lap 14 crash that cleared 16 cars from the middle of the field just before a five-hour rain delay. Once racing resumed under the lights around 9.30pm, Wallace resurfaced near the top of the field no worse for wear to tangle with the top cars and even lead a lap – the first time a black driver has ever done so at Daytona. He hung in until the bitter end before McDowell – a 100-1 underdog – claimed the first victory of his otherwise unremarkable 14-year Cup career after midnight.

And while 17th place may not seem like a big deal for Wallace, who usually finishes right around there, a little perspective is helpful. As Jordan himself acknowledged in the Fox interview, so much of this sport is out of the driver’s control. “When I’m on the court, I can go rebound, I can go shoot. I can play defense,” he told Strahan. “Here, all I can do is cheer.”

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That a black owner and a black driver even showed up at Daytona 500 for the first time since 1969, stayed in hunt for the entire race and will keep going for the rest of this season and beyond is a feat on par with Jordan’s free-throw line slam dunk – simply astonishing. That they, under shrewd Hamlin’s direction, were able to accomplish so much so quickly is a testament to viability of this promising new venture. Still, it will take a few more copycats, and far less virtue-signaling, before Nascar can truly call this progress.