Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

Ahead of schedule? Ty Gibbs’ growth ‘a pleasant surprise’ for JGR in first Xfinity stint

With just nine NASCAR Xfinity Series starts to his name, Ty Gibbs is a focal point whenever he hits the track. Quite simply, he’s outperforming what many in the garage thought is possible so early into a national touring career.

Sure, throughout his racing career, Gibbs, 18, has always been in superb equipment. After all, his grandfather is Coach Joe Gibbs, who built a NASCAR empire after a successful coaching career in the NFL.

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Still, few expected Gibbs’ grandson to win in his Xfinity Series debut on the Daytona International Speedway road course. Or for him to follow that up three months later at Charlotte Motor Speedway by winning his first time out on a 1.5-mile track.

But Gibbs is a driver who expects the absolute best — optimal performance — out of himself. And with seven top-five finishes in nine starts — with his two other finishes being 18th at Darlington Raceway (sped twice on pit road) and 33rd last weekend at Road America (transmission issues) — it’s safe to say he’s living up to those standards.

“It’s definitely going better than I expected,” Gibbs recently told NASCAR.com. “It’s been fun. I was definitely a little nervous coming in because it’s so different and it’s a high level – just one level more and it’s the Cup Series. It’s cool to think about that, but we put our heads down and focus on racing.”

The all-star No. 54 Toyota, which also has four wins from Kyle Busch and a runner-up result from Martin Truex Jr. this year, is led by crew chief Chris Gayle. Before the 2021 season, Gayle spent the past four years working with Erik Jones in the Cup Series.

Despite being in the JGR camp for nearly a decade, Gayle didn’t have a real connection with Gibbs before working with him this season. And after chatting with Coy Gibbs (vice chairman and chief operating officer of JGR) over the offseason, the team planned on running Ty in roughly 15 races this season.

And at first, the plan was to take baby steps.

“I think after talking to [Coy] and looking at him having no experience, we were just looking for top 10s,” Gayle said. “We were going to get our feet wet. We were just trying to select races that made sense that fell in his wheelhouse where he had experience in other cars and could go in and potentially perform well.”

Ty has an average finish of 7.7 and sits 16th in the championship standings, despite missing eight races. Though having a stellar stat sheet, he made it clear he doesn’t run off confidence. “I don’t really think I have that emotion in my body,” he says. “I’ve never really [gotten] too confident about races.”

Like Gayle, Gibbs was aiming for top-10 finishes at the beginning. A breakout run might be cracking the top five. However, in a deeper Xfinity Series this season, he knew that was going to be a tough feat.

In fact, the teenager is taken aback by some of his success this season.

“It’s definitely surprising, for sure,” he said. “To be able to run for wins and top fives every weekend has been super cool. I feel like a couple of races like Darlington, we had a shot to win that one. At Dover, we missed it a little bit. But my team works really hard at what they do and we’re going into each weekend running well.”

A measured approach

Across the board, the No. 54 Toyota has won six of the 17 Xfinity races run this season.

Though success came quick in other series, specifically ARCA, JGR didn’t want to rush Ty up the ranks. There were no hesitations of giving him the Xfinity opportunity in 2021, but Steve DeSouza, executive vice president of JGR’s Xfinity and development program, has seen drivers rushed up through the program too soon before.

That wasn’t going to happen again.

Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

“He gets in the car, gets in a zone and goes,” DeSouza said of the young Gibbs. “He’s got the ability to zone in and his feel seems to be coming naturally on where he needs to be on the race track. It’s almost like he has a radar of where he can move and when, without a lot of people directing him and coaching him.

“He’s still young and he’s the first one to raise his hand and say, ‘I made a mistake.’ He does an extensive amount of preparation. He’s a student of the sport. We’re really encouraged.”

Gayle echoes DeSouza’s assessment of Gibbs’ work ethic. A lot of his preparation comes from iRacing, even though he might get an allotted amount of simulator time at TRD. That way, he’s already prepared before entering the simulator.

And when Ty is away from the track and not racing (as was the case recently at Nashville Superspeedway), he will still be tuning in from home, looking for ways to get better.

Gayle said, “He stayed home, but he was like, ‘I’ll have SMT up while practice is going. I’ll watch SMT, I’ll watch the timing scoring and go through it like I’m there.’ I think that’s the thing that says a lot about it, that people behind the scenes don’t know how bad he really wants this.

“This is all he’s ever really wanted to do. I’ll tell you, I didn’t know that coming into it. You can hear people say that, but until you see it, I’m coming into it with the same apprehension that everyone else has, ‘Sure, this is Coach’s grandson and we want it to work out, but does [Ty] really want this?’ That’s what I’ve seen out of this. This is what he lives and breathes. There’s nothing he really wants to do other than this, and it shows in how much he puts himself around it all the time.”

As a father, Coy is proud to see his son achieve success on the race track. But had he known how well Ty was going to do, JGR would have found a way to run him full time in Xfinity this year.

“You don’t know how good anyone is until you stick ’em up in there,” Coy recently said to a group of media at Pocono Raceway. “We probably would have changed what we’re doing, what he’s racing this year, if we knew he could run that good. It’s been a pleasant surprise.”

Partnering for a promotion

As far as potentially developing into a full-time Xfinity driver in 2022, JGR claims to not be in a hurry to move him up. But with his success in a limited schedule this season, it would be logical to move him into one of the team’s full-time rides.

DeSouza recalls there have been several times in the past where he thought a driver wasn’t ready for the big leagues, only for them to prove him wrong at the Cup level.

“I think Coach and Coy are open, but they didn’t want to push it,” DeSouza said. “They want to get him up there and let him be successful. I’ve been the first to stand on the soapbox at times with Denny [Hamlin], Joey [Logano], talking about them in passing. A lot of people were saying, ‘Let’s take them, they’re ready’ and I go, ‘I don’t know if we should do that.’ I would say 90% of the time I’ve been wrong. When they got there they were fast.

“I feel protective of our little guys, and I want them to have the experience and knowing once they get there we’ve done everything we can as an organization, as our group on the Xfinity side to help them be ready. Getting to Xfinity, he’s demonstrating that now.”

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DeSouza added that when sponsorship and opportunities present themselves, the team will evaluate what those are and if some of those include moving him up full time to Xfinity then that’ll be on the discussion table. But the team wants to find the right partner, so that Ty can be integrated into the company’s marketing plan.

For now, though, Gibbs doesn’t mind running primarily a black race car, believing it looks fresh and stands out. The easiest way to attract new sponsors is to continue winning.

So is Ty a leading candidate to run for JGR full time in 2022?

DeSouza said, “I think what we’ve seen so far, I don’t think there’s any question he’s capable. But we want to see him run the rest of the races he’s got scheduled and again, if the opportunity with a partner comes along and it’s a great match for him.”

As for what’s the next challenge for Ty, he wants to continue learning about himself and how life works. Everything after that is just a bonus.