Michael Jordan was at the Daytona 500 on Sunday. And he was being Michael Jordan — part astute businessman and marketer. Part impatient competitor.
Jordan is a co-owner of a new race team — the No. 23 car, of course. As a lifelong NASCAR fan, he knows that presents a steep learning curve. And his hand-picked driver, Bubba Wallace, is still looking for his breakthrough (he finished 22nd a year ago and recorded just three top-10 finishes).
So Jordan is patient.
And he’s not.
“By the end of the year, I think he will have the opportunity and probably win a couple of races,” Jordan said on the Fox Sports pre-race show.
Two victories? This year?
“If it's more, I’ll be elated,” Jordan said.
Here we go.
“We don’t sign checks to losers,” Jordan said to Wallace.
He was joking. We think, at least considering the Charlotte Hornet players have been getting paid for years now.
There is no denying the significance for NASCAR of having Jordan involved as an owner. It’s a sign of potential for the sport. It’s a sign of progress. It’s also a sign of the predicament NASCAR finds itself in: Namely, the presence of a co-owner of a new race team with little chance to win (as of now) was one of the major storylines heading into its most notable race.
That’s OK. NASCAR will take it.
Jordan’s presence would be great for any team in any sport. Just about every business would like to be associated with the iconic, six-time NBA champion. Usually you have to pay him vast sums just to nod in your direction.
It’s even more significant for the stock-car racing circuit that is in desperate need of fans, sponsors, casual television viewers and just a plain old shot in the arm of cool. That he hired Wallace, the only African American driver at the Cup Series level, just adds to it. That he was on the Daytona broadcast, spouting off and busting chops is all the better.
“I’m excited,” Jordan said. “I’m nervous, even though I'm not getting in the car.”
What can Jordan mean for NASCAR? Who knows at this point? Having him involved can’t hurt though. Same with the entertainer Pitbull, another minority co-owner from outside the racing world.
Whether it’s drawing new fans in for a first look, or even reminding old ones who drifted away to give it a second chance, these are stars who have been known to sway consumers.
Jordan said he saw the chance to become a team owner with driver and friend Denny Hamlin as a continuation of his Jumpman brand's previous sponsorship of Hamlin.
“It was a great opportunity,” Jordan said. “Why not? I knew, as a fan, I watched the sport. Now you can introduce it to people [who can then] understand the sport, [if] that logo brings somebody to it, [and they begin] to understand the competitive nature [of the sport] each and every day.”
If nothing else, Jordan symbolizes a different type of NASCAR fan, one who runs against the stereotype of the rural, white, Southern male.
It’s important if only because the grandstands and infields have never been a monolith. The perception has never been the reality. A love of fast cars, danger and a unique traveling soap opera transcends race, class, religion and so on.
In normal times, there are million-dollar RVs parked in the Daytona infield, not far from simple pup tents and plywood bars. There are fans from all 50 states. And yes, there are Black men such as Jordan, who as a child in Wilmington, North Carolina, would regularly attend races in the South with his family.
“I grew up in NASCAR,” Jordan said. “My father used to pack the whole family in, we’d go to Darlington [South Carolina], we’d go to Rockingham [North Carolina], we’d go to Charlotte [North Carolina], we came down to Daytona [Florida], to Talladega [Alabama].
“From that point on, I've been hooked on NASCAR.”
After a year in which NASCAR’s long overdue decision to ban the Confederate flag at races resulted in major protests from some fans — some of whom are presumably now former fans — a positive reset is needed.
“For years I've been asked, ‘How do we get more minorities in the sport?’” said Wallace. “There is so much backlash from this flag among the minority groups that we are trying to attract. [By banning it] we are opening the door for a whole new family to come in and enjoy this sport.”
It’s not just African Americans or other minorities, either. There are plenty of white fans who see that flag as distasteful or hateful. Team Jordan will take any supporter it can get. Same with NASCAR.
Jordan won’t change the sport’s long, slow decline in popularity. Not on his own, of course. He’s still just an owner, and his role with the team has been limited. He didn’t even meet Wallace until he sat down for a group interview with Fox.
Prior to that, Wallace said they’d communicated “just through text messages.”
So it’s not like MJ has his head under a car hood — which would be absurd anyway. Jordan knows he’s there for his money, his marketing and perhaps his competitive spirit.
“On the court, I can go rebound, I can go shoot, I can play defense,” he said. “Here, all I can do is cheer.”
Whatever. At least he’s here. A familiar face giving an old sport a new look.
“I've never seen a Black owner, or someone of color, who could dictate what happened to their team,” Jordan said of NASCAR.
Jordan can do that. He partnered with proven winners — Hamlin, but also Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing. He brought in the sponsors — McDonald's, DoorDash and others, not just Jumpman. He hired a young and marketable driver.
And now he expects to win. Soon, at least. Just like always.
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