CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Michael Jordan took his own advice and just did it: The NBA legend formed his own NASCAR organization, and he expects the foundation will be in place to build racing's version of a Dream Team centered around Bubba Wallace.
Air Jordan has some company on the celebrity starting grid, though, after rapper Pitbull bought his own piece of a NASCAR team. When the 2021 Cup Series season officially opens with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 14, "Mr. Worldwide" could have fans — up to 30,000 of them at Daytona International Speedway — shouting "Dale!"
"There's no better time to be involved in NASCAR," said Pitbull, who was attracted to the sport by the 1990 movie "Days of Thunder" and is now partnered with new team Trackhouse Racing, which along with Mexican driver Daniel Suarez provides a platform to reach a broader audience.
"In the same way that music is a universal language, I also see NASCAR as a universal language," Pitbull added. "Everybody loves a fast car and a great story."
The fan favorites extend well beyond the owner's box. Chase Elliott, NASCAR's most popular driver, is also the reigning Cup Series champion, and three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin — who helped usher MJ into the sport — has kids asking about his PJs in a national commercial tagline he can't shake.
The schedule underwent an overdue overhaul and now has a whopping seven road courses and five new venues. NASCAR is even set for an off-road detour through the dirt at fan-favorite Bristol Motor Speedway.
Perhaps in any other season, NASCAR could raise a glass to what its broadcast partner is billing as "The Best Season Ever," but promising "best" anything in a pandemic seems as outlandish as a 62-year-old driver — 1990 winner Derrike Cope, behind the wheel for Rick Ware Racing — in the Daytona 500.
Yet here we are, quickly approaching the anniversary of COVID-19 shutting down sports across the country, with NASCAR navigating the pandemic by first filling the free time with nationally televised iRacing and then leading the return to action just two months later. The Cup Series reached the finish line as intended, wrapping up last November in Arizona having completed its full schedule — but only by moving races, running with limited attendance or no spectators and trusting participants to monitor their own health.
Concerns still linger regarding whether the circuit can go from February to fall without interruptions to the schedule and drivers falling ill. At least four drivers tested positive for COVID-19 during the 2020 season, with Austin Dillon and Jimmie Johnson on the top circuit and Truck Series driver Spencer Davis missing races.
NASCAR again won't test competitors in 2021 but plans on having rapid tests at the tracks when needed. The bubble has been widened this season to allow a team owner into the garage for the first time since last March, and NASCAR acknowledged it must be "nimble" with its schedule. The second race of the season scheduled in Fontana, California, has already been moved to the road course at Daytona because of pandemic restrictions.
NASCAR executive vice president Steve O'Donnell touted the momentum from a successful 2020 season but acknowledged the pandemic has challenged NASCAR going into the new year.
"I think all of us hoped by this time we'd have full grandstands and be ready to rock and roll for the 500," he said. "That's not the case."
Daytona can hold more than 100,000 in its grandstands and thousands more in the infield, but the speedway considered the home of NASCAR will be limited to roughly 30,000 spectators when the green flag drops on Valentine's Day. The Daytona 500 is the capper to the season-opening extravaganza known as Speedweeks, which kicks off next Tuesday, Feb. 9, with the Busch Clash, a nonpoints event that will be run for the first time on the venue's road circuit; qualifying begins Wednesday night, a process that continues with Thursday's Duels at Daytona.
The third-tier Truck Series opens its season Friday night, with the second-tier Xfinity Series racing Saturday before "The Great American Race" is run for the 63rd time on Sunday.
Hamlin is seeking to become the first driver to win the race three times in a row — and trying to do so while transitioning into team ownership. He still drives for Joe Gibbs Racing but has partnered with Jordan to create 23XI Racing (pronounced twenty-three eleven) and field a car for Wallace, the only Black full-time driver at NASCAR's top level.
Wallace had a tumultuous 2020 as he became NASCAR's face for racial justice and change. He successfully pushed NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at its events, and with it came a wave of backlash from some fans. Wallace weathered it as best as he could — even when NASCAR brought in the FBI to investigate a garage door pull in his stall at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway that had been fashioned into a noose months earlier — and it ultimately led to a millions in new sponsorship dollars that gave Wallace the funding to help get 23XI Racing off the ground.
He and Jordan become the only Black team owner and driver combination in the sport, and the pairing puts Wallace in a glaring spotlight. Winless in 112 Cup Series races driving for underfunded Richard Petty Motorsports, Wallace knows it is time to deliver.
Wallace is seeking a balance in trying to be successful with a high-profile team while also using his platform to push for diversity. If he can do it all with fewer headaches, he'd be thrilled.
"I lost seven pounds through everything that happened last year. So much stress and pressure, Lord," Wallace said. "I have a goal every year to not be a part of the headlines. Every year I have that goal. And I've failed every year."
23XI with Jordan and Trackhouse with Pitbull are two of three new teams entering the Cup Series this year in anticipation of a new car in 2022 that will make NASCAR more affordable for owners.
Kyle Larson returns after a nearly full-season suspension for using a racial slur during a live stream of an iRacing event, and he will drive for Hendrick Motorsports, which in November celebrated its 13th NASCAR championship with Elliott's win. They are two of the most dynamic young drivers in the series and hope to fill a void created by a rash of retirements, including Johnson, who won his record-tying seven Cup Series titles with Hendrick but made 2020 his last season with a full-time NASCAR schedule.
New teams, new tracks, young drivers and an abundance of optimism have led broadcast partner Fox to market the 2021 NASCAR campaign as "the best season ever." Whether that is true won't be known at least until Nov. 7, the scheduled date for the finale at Phoenix Raceway.
"I can't remember, at least not a season that I've been a driver in Cup, this amount of changes ever happening before, and I think it's a nice little shot in the arm," veteran driver Brad Keselowski said. "As far as best season ever, I don't think I'm the right person to judge, but I don't know how you could argue that it's not mostly good stuff happening."