Near the end of its first season in NASCAR, 23XI Racing is in an interesting position: It's gone through significant first-year growing pains, and its results haven't quite matched the hype that accompanied its inception. And yet, the team is set to introduce a second car and a former Cup Series champion in 2022. That's necessitated some changes within the organization which will be effective for the rest of the season.
On Thursday, 23XI Racing announced that Mike Wheeler, the crew chief for the team's No. 23 Toyota, will become 23XI's full-time director of competition. The move to director of competition will take him off the pit box, and he will be replaced by Bootie Barker as Bubba Wallace's crew chief for the remainder of the 2021 season.
Wheeler, who has served as the team's de facto director of competition since the team's establishment -- and is known affectionately as "Wheels" -- will now focus on 23XI's expansion from one to two cars as well as work on the team's future headquarters.
"Mike Wheeler has been a huge part of helping build 23XI Racing," read a statement by 23XI Racing president Steve Lauletta "From day one, Wheels has helped put this team together, with a focus on the competition side. As we move towards 2022, it's important for us to put the right people in place that help continue the growth of 23XI to the next level.
"As we finish out the 2021 season, this move allows Wheels to focus on our overall vision for 23XI and allow Bootie to help Bubba and the No. 23 team finish strong over the final eight races."
In their first season working together, Wallace and Wheeler's results have not quite been what had been hoped for 23XI Racing: The team only has two top 10 finishes this season, though both such finishes were within the top 5. Wallace parlayed fuel strategy into a fifth-place finish at Pocono, and then avoided a big wreck on the final lap in the summer race at Daytona to tie his career-best finish of second. At this time last year, Wallace had one top 5 and a career-best five top 10 finishes while driving for Richard Petty Motorsports.
Despite modest on-track results, Wallace has committed to the vision of 23XI Racing's future as the team co-owned by NBA legend Michael Jordan and NASCAR star Denny Hamlin expands its Cup footprint with the introduction of the Next Gen car in 2022.
"I think Denny's direction and vision is getting this team going in the right direction," Wallace said during a recent appearance on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, per Kelly Crandall of RACER. "We just have to keep doing what we're doing and I just have to keep doing my job. We want to try and get this No. 23XI program up and going and being consistent. I think that's one thing we've lacked a little bit this year. We've lacked consistency. We're trying to make that the best we can and that's what I'm looking forward to the most.
"We've just got to eliminate the mistakes and show up with the stars and everything else aligned. it's good to have the support from Denny and the team because this sport is so demanding. It's grueling and demanding, so when you have a team like this that is with you every step of the way like this one is, it definitely helps the confidence."
In taking over as Wallace's crew chief, Robert "Bootie" Barker will return to the top of the pit box for the first time since 2017. Barker served as a Cup crew chief from 2003 until 2017, working with drivers such as Dave Blaney, Mike Bliss, Michael Waltrip, Casey Mears, and most recently Ty Dillon.