Michael Jordan is now a NASCAR team owner.
Maybe it reads strange. Maybe it sounds strange. But the road to making that sentence a reality isn’t as nearly as long or as rocky as most might think.
On Monday night, the sports world was buzzing when news broke that Jordan was entering into a partnership with NASCAR racer Denny Hamlin, currently ranked second in the Cup Series championship standings with seven races remaining. Those two have purchased a team charter from Germain Racing to field cars for Bubba Wallace, who will leave Richard Petty Motorsports at season’s end. The details of car number, sponsor, crew, etc. are all TBD. But the charter guarantees them a starting spot in the Cup Series field every weekend, and a technical alliance with Hamlin’s employer, Joe Gibbs Racing, guarantees equipment produced by NASCAR’s current dynasty-builder.
So, how did Hamlin, Jordan and Wallace end up together? It started back in 2006. That’s when Jordan became an investor in the still-new Charlotte Bobcats. The Jack Nicholson of the Bobcats was Hamlin, a NASCAR wunderkind who won two races during his first full-time Cup Series season and was a self-described “basketball junkie” who sat courtside at the NBA team’s sparkling new arena. In ’06, Jordan and Hamlin formed a friendship that has continued to this day. They started playing golf. Hamlin began sporting the Jumpman logo on his firesuits, wearing custom-made Jordan-branded racing shoes and, on occasion, bringing Jordan to the racetrack as his guest.
Whenever Jordan made an appearance at Daytona International Speedway or Charlotte Motor Speedway, it caused a stir. But few realized that he was already very familiar with both racetracks. As a kid growing up in Wilmington, North Carolina, his father, James, would often take Michael and his siblings to Winston Cup Series races around the Carolinas, places like Charlotte, Darlington and Rockingham, and even all the way to Daytona Beach, Florida.
During his time as a UNC Tar Heel, Jordan befriended teammate Brad Daugherty, a stock car racing fanatic from Black Mountain, North Carolina, who went on to wear No. 43 in the NBA because of his Richard Petty fandom.
“My teammates, from Chapel Hill to the Cleveland Cavaliers, most of them have always given me a hard time when I’d be in the locker room changing the TV channel to the NASCAR races,” Daugherty recalled in June. “Michael always gave me a hard time, too, about being a hillbilly and all of that. But you know what? He would also sit there and watch with me. He liked it. He always did.”
From 2003 to 2013, Jordan returned to Daytona often as owner of Michael Jordan Motorsports, an AMA Superbike team. He loved the athleticism and precision of the racers who piloted the aero-slick motorcycles at nearly 200 mph, but was often frustrated by an ages-old racing quandary: how to compete in an equipment-dependent world of haves ruling over the have-nots.
For years, as in nearly a couple of decades, both Hamlin and Daugherty lobbied Jordan to invest in NASCAR. Jordan was only one of Daugherty’s NBA recruits. Daugherty has owned race teams nearly his entire adult life, from late-model short-track efforts to the NASCAR Truck Series to JTG Daugherty Racing, the Cup Series team he has co-owned since the 2007 season.
Ryan McGee explains how Michael Jordan came to partner with Denny Hamlin to field a NASCAR Cup car that will have Bubba Wallace as the driver.
“All the while, I have worked really hard to convince my friends from the NBA and Black corporate CEOs to invest in NASCAR, but it was always a really difficult sale,” Daugherty said in June. “If I could get them to the racetrack, they would always love it. But they would also see Confederate flags and they would see no Black drivers. So why would they want to invest in that? They would tell me that if those things changed, then maybe one day they would be on board.”
Jordan is both an NBA legend and a corporate CEO, and his reservations when it came to investing in NASCAR were exactly what Daugherty ran into with all the others. Jordan had also done his homework on NASCAR racing as investment, looking at previous efforts across all levels of stock car racing, backed at varying degrees of involvement by everyone from Randy Moss and Brett Favre to Julius Erving and Joe Washington to Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach. Some of those teams had success, but all ultimately failed. And that doesn’t include the list of teams that never got off the ground, announced by the likes of Tim Brown, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and the Wayans brothers.
So what was different about now? What was the missing ingredient to the recipe that convinced Michael Jordan to write a check to go stock car racing?
The answer is Darrell Wallace Jr., who has spent the 2020 Cup Series season on an upward trajectory of public recognition like nothing NASCAR has ever seen. He has battled bigotry — he called for a ban on Confederate flags at tracks, and NASCAR listened — while also battling for top-10 finishes as a driver for poor-but-proud Richard Petty Motorsports. Over the past two months, Wallace has accrued multiple personal sponsorship deals worth millions of dollars and repeatedly hinted about an impending new opportunity for 2021 and beyond.
“Michael always gave me a hard time, too, about being a hillbilly and all of that. But you know what? He would also sit there and watch with me. He liked it. He always did.”
Brad Daugherty on Michael Jordan
Now that deal is official, the culmination of multiple men on multiple roads, planning to walk down pit road together at Daytona in February. There’s a lot to do between now and then for a team with zero employees and zero race cars. But the lack of all that is made up for by an abundance of enthusiasm from His Airness.
“I think [Bubba] has the potential to be [a champion]. If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t get into this,” Jordan told The Charlotte Observer late Monday night. “Luck has a lot of do [with winning] in a lot of sports. But if you feel you have the same knowledge and the same equipment, you give yourself a chance. Then it’s all up to the driver.
“I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”
Explains Daugherty: “Bubba always knew what his potential as a race car driver was, and he has always respected his place in history as the first African American driver in the Cup Series in nearly 50 years. But only after what he has experienced in 2020, what we’ve all experienced through Bubba, do I think he’s fully understood what his potential has really meant. It’s a chance to bring a whole new demographic of fans and investors into the sport I have loved my entire life. But he’s also always known that potential will only get you so far. There’s only way to make sure you can have the maximum impact.”
And what’s that?
“That’s an easy answer,” Daugherty says. “But it’s also the hardest thing to do. Win races, man.”