Race Weekend Central

Friday Faceoff: Is 23XI Equal to Joe Gibbs Racing?

“I’m slowly but surely starting to believe that 23XI [Racing] is an equal to the position I’m in right now,” Denny Hamlin told Sports Business Journal. Do you agree?

Luken Glover: 23XI has come a long way in its short history, but it’s not at the level of Joe Gibbs Racing yet. JGR has had a strong start to the season, winning two races, finishing runner-up and third last weekend at Circuit of the Americas with Christopher Bell and Ty Gibbs, and having two of its drivers top the points between Martin Truex Jr. and Gibbs. Meanwhile, 23XI has shown flashes of speed between a runner-up by Tyler Reddick at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a fifth-place run at COTA and a pair of top fives by Bubba Wallace to open the season. However, 23XI still has had some inconsistency, and the pit crew woes have not abandoned the team yet. Despite the top five, Reddick’s COTA run was somewhat disappointing, as the defending race winner never really competed for the win. Meanwhile, Wallace has finished 15th or worse in the last four outings. They’re very likely going to be in the playoff mix, but JGR still has the advantage.

Andrew Stoddard: 23XI is not on JGR’s level, at least not yet, but it has closed the gap considerably in just its fourth season of existence. In 2023, 23XI got both of its full-time drivers in the playoffs compared to three out of four JGR cars making the cut. On the other hand, JGR is still vastly superior in terms of race wins, with 16 checkered flags since the start of the 2022 season to four for 23XI. For Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan’s organization to get over the hump and become equals to JGR, two things need to happen: more race wins and a driver in the Championship 4. That is the standard JGR has set, and it is the standard 23XI has to meet to reach equal footing in the Toyota stable.

Phil Allaway: 23XI isn’t equal to JGR. By nature, it never will be. That said, Hamlin and Jordan have hired a lot of good people to work for the team. They’re assembling good cars and hired good drivers in Reddick and Wallace. It’s a good place to be, but it’s not JGR.

James Krause: I disagree, at least for right now. As long as JGR is fielding four cars that on a week-to-week basis can compete for wins, it’s going to be the top of the mountain for Toyotas in the NASCAR Cup Series. While the success 23XI is experiencing is fantastic for a team just three years into full-time competition, it doesn’t match up to JGR — again, at least for right now. Hamlin jumping ship and making both teams three-car programs might shake up the pecking order among the manufacturers.

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Will the Richmond Raceway ratings determine whether it hosts two NASCAR race weekends in 2025?

Allaway: No, although this year’s race is on FOX, as opposed to FS1. There are other factors at play here. Attendance is one of them. The end of March is not a bad time of year to be in Richmond. Way better than late February or early March, which is when it raced there for decades. The infamous 1986 Miller High Life 400 from Richmond was on Feb. 23 and ran in 40-degree weather. Another factor is the potential addition of new venues for 2025. There’s the ongoing issue of what is going to happen in Southern California since NASCAR won’t be going to Auto Club Speedway. In addition, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve seemingly wants a Cup date again. NASCAR wasn’t ready for that in 2011. It is now. NASCAR isn’t going to add a 37th race to the Cup schedule, so something is going to have to go.

Krause: Nope. I’d imagine conclusions have already been drawn on Richmond’s future long before NASCAR arrives this week. With the amount of new places NASCAR is rumored to be trying to add to the schedule, it’s fair to say only a few tracks that host two events have both safely secured. If I’m NASCAR, Daytona International Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway’s two dates are all but guaranteed. Bristol Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway both have good enough racing and draw well enough for a spring and fall race. Richmond has always lagged behind those two facilities as an on-track product. Plus, it doesn’t have the benefit of being in as large a market as some of the other two-date tracks like Vegas, Phoenix Raceway or Kansas Speedway. If you rank tracks based on which were most likely to get cut down to one event, Richmond would be at the top regardless of the ratings this weekend.

Glover: Unfortunately for Virginia natives, it feels like Richmond is heading toward a one-date year in the future. Those fans likely won’t be alone, as NASCAR is looking to add more tracks to the schedule, which would require existing ones to give up a second date. This year, Richmond returned to two night races, but one is on Easter while the other is in the middle of summer. When its playoff date was taken away following the 2021 season, that felt like the first block pulled in the tower of having two dates. If ratings were an absolute hit, that might change things, but I don’t see them being the sole thing that keeps two dates in the Commonwealth.

Stoddard: TV ratings will be a factor, but it will not be the only factor. Sunday night marks the first Richmond race on a major network since the spring 2022 season. The 2022 race on FOX garnered a 2.3 rating and 3.958 million viewers. If Sunday’s race is in that ballpark, that helps Richmond’s case. However, NASCAR will also take into account in-person attendance, and several recent Richmond races have featured patches of bare aluminum in the grandstands. Between that and NASCAR continuing to explore new markets and different racetracks, Richmond needs to be on top of its game on all fronts to retain two race dates.

What do you expect from Bubba Pollard in his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut?

Krause: The floor for Bubba Pollard feels like a top 20 and the ceiling could be even higher than a top five. Pollard’s got a ton of experience and success on short tracks, but he’s racing a whole new pack of drivers with whom he doesn’t share the same familiarity. That said, there’s probably no better team for him to debut with than JR Motorsports. The team has six wins at Richmond and has failed to finish only three times in 93 entries.

Glover: Pollard makes the Xfinity race at Richmond an even more intriguing event. This is a late model legend who will be in great equipment at JRM, and we’ve seen what past late model aces can do on short tracks in NASCAR (looking at you, Josh Berry). It is reasonable to set the bar at a top-12 result, but if Pollard can figure things out quickly during the weekend, he feasibly could compete for a top 10 or top five.

Stoddard: Pollard has plenty of prior short track success, most notably wins in the Slinger Nationals and the Canadian Short Track Nationals. Pollard will also be in top-tier Xfinity Series equipment, piloting the No. 88 JRM Chevrolet. Still, a first start in any racing series is going to take time for the driver to adjust. I predict a lead-lap finish somewhere in the teens for Pollard on Saturday.

Allaway: Pollard isn’t going to just show up and embarrass everyone. If he did, that would be a substantial indictment on the current crop of drivers out there. An Xfinity car is quite a bit different from a late model. I think he realized that last weekend at Five Flags Speedway in the ARCA Menards Series East. When Berry debuted at Iowa Speedway in 2014, he finished 12th. That’s a decent comparison. Pollard could do that, or even finish in the top 10. Anything beyond that is gravy.

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Corey Heim dominated at COTA and has 20 top 10s in his last 21 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series races. How long until he moves up the ladder?

Stoddard: Corey Heim has proven himself more than worthy of a promotion, and Toyota is going to be keen on moving him up quickly, especially with Hamlin and Truex both in their mid-40s. Heim will be full time in the Xfinity Series in 2025, most likely in a JGR Toyota.

Allaway: This is a longtime problem for Toyota in NASCAR. It is good at identifying burgeoning talent and nurturing those drivers up through the ranks. However, you have slim pickings once you get beyond the Truck Series. That is Heim’s current position. He was already good enough to move up after last year but is spending another year with TRICON Garage. He’ll move up to the Xfinity Series full time next year, but I have no idea where he could go. He’s more than good enough to snag a full-time JGR ride there, but there might not be room at the inn, especially if it chooses to run two full-time cars with multiple drivers next year like it is now. If that happens, he’s right where he is now unless Toyota provides funding for him to race full time for Sam Hunt Racing, or he leaves like Jesse Love did.

Krause: It won’t be long at all. Heim is bound to be in Xfinity next season, the only question would be with whom. He’s still partnered with Toyota and longtime Toyota sponsors like JBL, so maybe he will join an already stacked lineup with JGR, which fields three full-time entries next season. Hunt is on the rise too, and Heim’s run with it. If it feels it is ready to take a big leap forward, perhaps it can try its hand at fielding a full-time driver in Heim.

Glover: Heim is destined to move up to at least Xfinity next year. It’s early in the season, so it will likely be a few months before we hear anything about a future promotion, but he has absolutely deserved it. The TRICON driver is one of the top prospects in the sport, and with strong Toyota support, TRD is probably ready to jump at the chance to sign him. He will also get some more opportunities at Xfinity racing this season, so that may provide a glimpse as well.

About the author

James Krause joined Frontstretch in March 2024 as a contributor. Krause was born and raised in Illinois and graduated from Northern Illinois University. He currently works in La Crosse, Wisconsin as a local sports reporter, including short track racing. Krause is a fan of football, auto racing, music, anime and video games.

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

Andrew Stoddard joined Frontstretch in May of 2022 as an iRacing contributor. He is a graduate of Hampden-Sydney College, the University of Richmond, and VCU. He has a new day job as an athletic communications specialist at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.

Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.

Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.

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Bob

Doesn’t Hamlin buy tech support from Gibbs? Can’t be as good as until he has his own technology, Remember what happened when Gibbs raised the tech support price to Furniture Row (after they beat everybody for the championship). They closed shop!

Echo

They get everything Gibbs cars do, everything.

Bill B

23XI will be as good as Gibbs when they can compete with little to no help from JGR. Until then they are just a satellite team sucking on the teet of a top tier team.
Denny is full of shit. If he really believed that he’d be driving for his own team. Hamlin should think about getting into politics when he retires because he sure can shovel it with the best of them.

Echo

Denny probably gets 10 million a year from Gibbs let’s just say. PLUS his team gets access to all information that Toyota and Gibbs has. Bubba didn’t suddenly learn how to drive. I really hope Hamlin doesn’t get to the championship race because Toyota has a big advantage there this year. Hamlin is in a fantastic position staying racing for Gibbs.

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