New NASCAR team owners Denny Hamlin, Justin Marks talk growing the sport
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — One of the new, young owners in the NASCAR Cup Series isn’t afraid to make noise, whether it is with a famous co-owner or saying something in the media that might frustrate fellow owners or the NASCAR brass.
Another one of the new, young owners in the NASCAR Cup Series isn’t afraid to make noise, whether it is with a famous co-owner or doing something that surprises the garage because of its unpredictable nature.
Denny Hamlin, whose 23XI Racing team is co-owned by Michael Jordan, and Justin Marks, whose Trackhouse Racing team is co-owned by musician Pitbull, are approaching ownership with different modus operandi. The one thing they have in common is significant racing experience and the desire to see the sport grow.
"Listen, I'm working very, very hard to help promote change in the sport for the better," Hamlin said. "I'm doing my part. I want to leave this sport in a better place than it was when I got in here.
"I've invested enough and [am] informed enough to have an opinion on some of the topics that we talked about."
During race week in Charlotte, both young owners found their way into the spotlight.
Marks did so by announcing Project 91, a third Cup car for Team Trackhouse that Marks will field in one race this year and possibly six-to-eight races next year. The idea is to bring an internationally known driver to the Cup Series.
"A lot of teams are focused so much on just trying to win NASCAR Cup Series races and focus all their attention [on that] because it's hard to do," Marks said.
"But I got into this to do big, big things."
With the Next Gen car designed similar to sports cars and touring cars that many drivers have at least a little experience with, Marks figures the transition could be a bit easier now than for drivers who previously tried one-off events.
"Project 91 is more about international relevance than it is where they're from. ... I would run a run with anybody within reason," Marks said. "But the thing is that Project 91 exists as a brand extension of Trackhouse, that can put programs together that the world would be interested in seeing."
Former Formula 1 champion Kimi Raikkonen, who retired after last year, will drive the No. 91 Cup car in August at Watkins Glen.
While the announcement of the program last week seemed to come out of nowhere, the idea has been alive for a couple of years.
"It has been an idea that has been on the shelf since basically Trackhouse started," Marks said. "It's just been in a corner of my head.
"But the actual pursuit of Project 91 started about four or six races into the season, when I felt like things were sort of settled enough that I could throw a new idea at everybody without overwhelming them."
The key will be to have drivers who push the needle internationally, and Marks has had several drivers contact him after last week. Raikkonen does have a little NASCAR experience, having competed in an Xfinity and a truck race in 2011.
"It’s just a good way to grow our brand," Marks said. "I want to build a great motorsports brand. That’s why this team was never going to be ‘Justin Marks Racing’ or ever have my name on it.
"There is just a lot of opportunity to unite different corners of the motorsports world and to be the brand that truly engages internationally."
It was just about a year ago when Marks stunned the NASCAR world by announcing he had purchased Chip Ganassi Racing effective at the end of the season.
That put more than 100 employees and a team infrastructure in Marks’ hands. The first season for Trackhouse was spent with a handful of employees embedded at Richard Childress Racing.
The purchase of Ganassi allowed Trackhouse to come to the track with an eye on winning races on a weekly basis. Ross Chastain already has won twice this year.
Hamlin didn’t buy a team. He started from scratch for his first season in 2021 and then expanded to two cars for 2022 while also remaining a driver at Joe Gibbs Racing.
He also bought land for a shop but hasn’t started building yet. In a Sports Business Journal story published last week, Hamlin said that he told NASCAR Chairman Jim France that any additional investment was on hold until Hamlin has confidence in the business model.
Hamlin, like many owners, wants a bigger piece of the television revenue (teams get 25% while tracks get 65% and NASCAR, which also owns the majority of the tracks, gets 10%).
Whenever he can, Hamlin will use his media platform to advocate for change.
"The pizza is big enough," Hamlin said about the revenues in the sport. "But there are some that are stuffed, and there are some that are starving. And they’re all at the same table."
Not everyone likes Hamlin’s style — or at least they wouldn’t take the same approach.
"I think we have to be careful not to fight this war in the media," Marks said.
Marks and Hamlin recently had lunch with Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith, whose portfolio of tracks includes 16 of the 38 Cup events. Hamlin has wanted tracks, which now are private entities instead of publicly traded companies as they had been for the past quarter-century, to be more open about their finances with the teams.
"I just feel like between me and Justin, we know what it takes to get into this sport," Hamlin said. "We just came in here in the last couple of years, we've seen what the model is, we see the challenges that it takes for teams that are winning in our sport so quickly, and having success, how hard this business [is] to be stabilized in the long term.
"And we want to make it better by collaborating with our TV partners, our track partners and NASCAR. I think that if we start working together, we will grow this into a big, big business."
The sport has had a long-standing tug-of-war between car owners and tracks as they fight each other for sponsors as well as fight over costs for suites and hospitality and activation for sponsors.
"Anytime you can sit at a table and be open and honest with each other, it’s productive," Marks said. "I think we have to do more of that as a sport.
"There's too much closed-door meetings in conversations where we assume what the other side is thinking without just opening that door and trying to really find out."
Thinking Out Loud
Even winner Denny Hamlin said he couldn’t evaluate the race until he watches a replay.
This was a good night but not a great night for the Next Gen car. It produced exciting racing (probably partially because of the numerous restarts).
NASCAR doesn’t need five-hour races, though, so hopefully teams and Goodyear can make gains where they can get a better handle on the loads, and they can be a little more stable.
Stat of the Day
The Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday was the longest race in miles in Cup history at 619.5 miles. It was the third-longest 600 in terms of time at five hours, 16 minutes, 16 seconds.
They Said It
"It’s not ideal by any means. I’m going to be a bit sore." — Chris Buescher after his flip
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!