2021 Team Preview: Joe Gibbs Racing and 23XI Racing

Graphic by Joe Passero

JOE GIBBS RACING

While Joe Gibbs Racing was competitive in 2020, it was a rather off year for the organization as a whole. Denny Hamlin scored plenty of wins, but Gibbs’ other three drivers – Erik Jones, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex, Jr. – only scored two wins combined.

Ahead of the 2021 season, Joe Gibbs Racing announced that Erik Jones would be replaced by Christopher Bell in the no. 20 car, while veterans Busch, Truex and Hamlin would all return to their respective rides for Gibbs’ 30th season in NASCAR.

As they have been for many years now, Joe Gibbs Racing will win races and they will compete for a championship. The real question is, after a season that was quite dismal for Gibbs in recent years, how fast can the organization rebound to get their drivers more consistently in victory lane?

Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota Camry

Denny Hamlin smiles after winning the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Pocono Raceway, Sunday,...
Photo credit: Matt Slocum/AP Photo

2020: 36 starts, 7 wins, 18 top-fives, 21 top-10s, 0 poles, 1,083 laps led, 4th in points

Career: 542 starts, 44 wins, 179 top-fives, 280 top-10s, 33 poles

2020 was one of Denny Hamlin’s best seasons. He kicked it off with his third Daytona 500 win and was a championship favorite all season long. When his primary rival for the title, Kevin Harvick, was eliminated from the playoffs, Hamlin looked like the favorite to finally take home his first series championship. Somehow, someway, Hamlin found a way to lose.

For the third time in his career, Hamlin entered the final race in contention for the championship and lost it. It’s becoming reminiscent of Mark Martin – a driver who could put together a whole season right up until the very end. 2021 could bring new life to Hamlin, however, as he embarks on a new adventure as co-owner of 23XI Racing, a new single-car Cup Series team which he and Michael Jordan (yes, the Michael Jordan) are funding. 

The birth of 23XI could serve as motivation to hamlin, as surely he’ll want both his own no. 11 team, as well the team he owns, to be more competitive. It could also serve as a distraction from the big prize if he invests himself too much into the new team and neglects his own.

The writer’s prediction: Hamlin won’t win as much in 2021 as he did in 2020, but he’ll still be a strong competitor and lead his team into round of 8 in the playoffs.

Kyle Busch, No. 18 Toyota Camry

Photo Credit: Chase Stevens/AP Photo

2020: 36 starts, 1 win, 14 top-fives, 20 top-10s, 0 poles, 516 laps led, 8th in points

Career: 570 starts, 57 wins, 214 top-fives, 316 top-10s, 32 poles

By “KFB” standards, 2020 was an absolutely miserable year for the two-time Cup Series champion. He only collected one win, the smallest amount since 2014. His 14 top-five finishes and 20 top-10s marked the lowest tallies in those categories since 2017 and 2015, respectively. His six did-not-finish (DNFs) results were triple of what he posted last year and the most DNFs he’s ever had in a single season in his 16-year full-time career in NASCAR’s premier division. Fortunately, it’s no longer 2020.

The last three times that the younger Busch brother had a single-win season, he collected at least four wins the following season with one of those seasons being his first championship-winning year back in 2015. So if anything, Kyle Busch fans should be looking forward to 2021. Plus, it can’t get much worse than 2020 was… right?

The writer’s prediction: Kyle Busch will win four times and comfortably make the playoffs. He’ll advance to the round of 12, but I’m not sure if he’ll make it any further than that for a second year in a row.

Martin Truex, Jr., No. 19 Toyota Camry

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America 500
Photo credit: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

2020: 36 starts, 1 win, 14 top-fives, 23 top-10s, 0 poles, 950 laps led, 7th in points

Career: 549 starts, 27 wins, 116 top-fives, 228 top-10s, 19 poles

Much like Kyle Busch, 2020 was a rather lackluster season for Martin Truex, Jr. The last time Truex scored less than four wins in a season was 2015, when his lone win of the year came at Pocono. Truex looked more competitive than Busch throughout the season, however. In 12 races through the mid-summer stretch and into the early playoffs, Truex posted 10 top-four finishes, including eight in a row.

Truex, who used to struggle at short tracks, got his lone win of 2020 at NASCAR’s shortest track, and had it not been for a loose wheel in the penultimate race of the season, he could have swept the two races at Martinsville. Short tracks could be where Truex shows his strength in 2021.

One other thing to look for in 2021 is how the communication between Truex and his team evolves. Truex lost Cole Pearn, his long-time crew chief he had so much success with in the mid-to-late 2010s. Pearn left prior to the 2020 season to pursue other personal accomplishments. James Small took over as crew chief and, well, only resulted in one win. Truex seemed very vocal about his frustrations during races this year, but if the team can communicate a little better, perhaps the no. 19 can find victory lane a few times in 2021. 

The writer’s prediction: Truex will win no more than four times in 2021. He’ll be consistent, just as he’s been over the past few years, and will race into the round of 8, possibly into the championship four.

Christopher Bell, No. 20 Toyota Camry

Norman native and NASCAR Cup Series rookie Christopher Bell has finished 12th or better in seven of the past 12 races. [Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images via NASCAR]
Photo credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

2020: 36 starts, 0 wins, 2 top-fives, 7 top-10s, 0 poles, 18 laps led, 20th in points

Career: 36 starts, 0 wins, 2 top-fives, 7 top-10s, 0 poles

Christopher Bell’s rookie campaign in NASCAR’s top division wasn’t anything flashy. He kept a cool head, stayed calm, and learned. He wasn’t in the spotlight all that much, so it’s a bit hard to gauge where he’s at heading into 2021. But you can bet that now, as he moves into one of NASCAR’s most competitive rides, we’ll learn where he’s at.

Bell drove for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Xfinity Series in two impressive campaigns that brought in to the championship four in both years. We have a driver we know can win in a ride that we know can win. However, an operation like Joe Gibbs Racings is nothing like Leavine Family Racing, which Bell drove for in 2020 – it’s bigger, more competitive, and at Gibbs, Bell will be expected to perform.

The writer’s prediction: It may take 20 races, but Bell and the no. 20 team will be competitive by the year’s end. Bell will get close to victory lane, but he’ll have to wait until 2022 to capture his first checkered flag.

23XI RACING

Silly season for NASCAR’s premier division was already in full swing by the time that NASCAR Cup Series driver Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan announced the formation of their new NASCAR team, 23XI (pronounced twenty-three-eleven) Racing. Hamlin and Jordan have been friends for years, and Hamlin even became the first NASCAR driver to be sponsored by the Jordan Brand. 

To the surprise of many fans, 23XI Racing announced that of the five sponsors who would help get the program off the ground and adorn the new no. 23 car, none of them were the Jordan Brand. Instead, the sponsors of the new team were announced to be McDonald’s, Root Insurance, Columbia outdoor apparel, DoorDash and Dr. Pepper.

Jordan, the majority owner of the team and the first black majority owner of any NASCAR Cup Series team, has been loud and clear that his car, which will be driven by Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr., will be a car capable of winning, complete with Toyota Racing Development engines and Joe Gibbs Racing chassis. If this is true, we very well may see a new team and driver celebrating in victory lane next season.

Darrell Wallace, Jr., No. 23 Toyota Camry

Bubba Wallace
Photo credit: Matt Slocum/AP Photo

2020: 36 starts, 0 wins, 1 top-five, 5 top-10s, 0 poles, 14 laps led, 22nd in points

Career: 112 starts, 0 wins, 3 top-fives, 9 top-10s, 0 poles

Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr. was called up to the no. 43 NASCAR Cup Series car fielded by legend Richard Petty back in 2017 for a handful of races while Petty’s full-time driver at the time, Aric Almirola, recovered from an injury he suffered after a vicious crash at Kansas. The next year, Bubba was Petty’s full-time driver.

2020 was a huge year for Bubba both on and off the racetrack. Not only was Bubba able to put up his best career season statistically, but he also played a big role in the progress NASCAR made off the track. Despite having a career year, it’s hard to use 2020 as an indication as to how Bubba will perform in 2021.

Knowing that Bubba will be in Gibbs and TRD equipment, there’s no question that he’ll be in cars capable of winning. Where the challenges will really come in is with how the team communicates and bonds. It may take a while to get up to speed, but by the end of the season, Bubba should be closer to the front than he’s been in a while.

The writer’s prediction: Bubba Wallace will have a career year on the track in 2021, posting as many or more top-five and top-10 finishes in this upcoming season as he’s posted in his entire career. Oh, and he’ll make the playoffs.

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