Week in and week out, the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Xfinity Series all-star car is running at the front of the field. The mastermind behind it all is Chris Gayle.
Gayle is coming off a four-year stint as a crew chief in the NASCAR Cup Series, leading the reigns for Erik Jones. But when JGR announced last August that it would place Christopher Bell into the No. 20 Toyota, Gayle’s future was uncertain.
“I was confident that it was going to affect me one way or the other, but I wasn‘t exactly sure of how at the time,” Gayle recently told Jayski.com. “I held on to thinking that I might still get an opportunity on the Cup side, until very, very, very late in that process.”
Growing up in Arkansas, there isn’t a ton of racing. Sure, Mark Martin made a Hall of Fame career residing from Gayle’s home state, but from the age of 12, the now-crew chief knew he wanted to be a part of racing.
However, Gayle had no ties to racing. His family wasn’t involved whatsoever. So while playing sports in high school, he had a friend who had a dirt car down the street. Gayle had found his passion.
“Nothing else piqued my interest like this, so that‘s where it started,” Gayle stated.
Gayle attended the University of Arkansas to pursue an engineering degree. But he believed the only way he’d have success was moving to North Carolina.
So he did.
Gayle transferred to the University of North Carolina Charlotte to finish up his degree. From there, he’d knock on doors to the local race shops, hoping to get a job out of school.
Once Gayle graduated, he ironically picked up a job with Team Bristol Motorsports, then driven by Kevin Grubb. However, Gayle was there just six months before helping out with JGR’s Camping World Truck Series team. He’s been with the company ever since.
From 2004 through 2012, Gayle was an engineer for the No. 18 Cup Series team. Along the way, he worked with 2000 Cup champion Bobby Labonte and JJ Yeley, but saw little success. In 2008, Kyle Busch entered the program and shifted the culture with eight race wins in the opening 22 races of the season.
“We went from not winning any races — I think we only got one pole in 2007 at Michigan with [Yeley] — to winning eight races that first year,” Gayle said. “It was an interesting change for all of us to not make any changes except for the driver and be that competitive.”
But in 2009, Busch won four races and finished a disappointing 13th in the championship standings. He knew changes needed to be made, and originally placed the blame on Gayle.
“He just wasn‘t doing a good enough job, I thought, to help Steve Addington to do Addington‘s job and so he was the problem,” Busch recalled. “It ended up being the other way around that it all went down.
“I was young, ambitious and not really knowing all of the things that I know now.”
As Busch‘s engineer, Gayle won 20 Cup races in a five-year span.
Having that success as an engineer, Gayle was ready for the next challenge. In 2013, he got his first big break as a crew chief with Elliott Sadler behind the wheel in the Xfinity Series. The duo went winless, before earning a victory at Talladega Superspeedway in 2014.
“I had done the engineering thing for so long on the Cup side that I felt like I was getting stagnant and there was no growth for me,” he said. “From day one, I wanted to be a crew chief, and that was never not the goal.
“When you‘re with a big team, it‘s very hard to make the determination of, ‘When do I leave a big team to go to a small team that maybe doesn‘t have the resources. Can I be successful?‘ I was very picky with how I decided to take some of the first crew chief roles because what I didn‘t want to do was take any crew chief role, not have the backing behind me to be successful at it and then you‘re spit out and never get another chance. That was why I wanted to wait the JGR thing out longer than maybe was ideal in my mind.”
Six years ago, Gayle took over the crew chiefing role of the No. 54 JGR Xfinity Series car, which was scheduled to primarily be run by Busch. Unfortunately, Busch was sidelined for three months after a vicious wreck in the season opener at Daytona.
The team went winless until Busch’s return at Michigan in June.
Busch said, “From there on, it was like, ‘Oh, we can win with Chris Gayle. He is a good crew chief.‘”
Eventually, Gayle moved to the Cup Series as a crew chief in 2017 with Jones, as part of Furniture Row Racing. In the process, he had to move out to Colorado, bringing just one member of the No. 54 Xfinity team with him.
Together, the duo won two races in four seasons together, including the 2019 Southern 500. That wasn’t enough to keep the duo together on the No. 20 team.
“He was an important part of my career, helping develop me as a driver and growing up,” Jones said of Gayle. “It was a good journey and we both grew a lot. Chris had never [been] a Cup crew chief, so he learned a lot and I learned a lot as a driver in that time.”
Admittedly, Gayle didn’t know what his plans were for the 2021 season until after the 2020 season finale at Phoenix Raceway. But man, was he irritated.
“It was way frustrating to be totally blunt and honest,” Gayle reiterated. “I thought I was pretty good and going to get to do one of a couple [Cup] cars that were options. Last minute things changed, not necessarily from the management of JGR. I think they probably would have preferred for me to stay as one of the Cup crew chief roles, but things changed from some outside influences.”
Gayle had to make a decision on what’s best for him and if he wanted to return to the Xfinity Series. At the time, the No. 54 car didn’t have a full season of sponsorship put together. There were many unknowns.
Gayle said, “I was contemplating leaving JGR and doing something totally different through the first week and a half. When they came back and I found out just before Phoenix — maybe a week before — that I wasn‘t going to be on the Cup side, I had to do a lot of soul searching for a week and a half, two weeks.”
Gayle had plenty of conversations with his wife about what’s the best move to make. After a couple of weeks, he decided his best option was to remain at JGR, but said, “I wasn‘t necessarily happy at the time with being demoted, in my mind, to Xfinity.”
Gayle’s motive? Win.
“The only way I‘ll make it successful for me and to get back to the Cup Series is to go out and win a lot of races and prove that, in my mind, it was a mistake to push me down to the Xfinity Series. I know that‘s a little petty on my side, but we all have our own internal motivations for things that we might hide and keep to our side.”
Internally at JGR, Gayle has people he has 100% trust in — people that will tell him the truth, whether it’s what he wants to hear or not. He leaned on those people to make the decision of joining the No. 54 team.
But his primary goal in racing is to remain competitive because, “I don‘t see myself as one of these guys who is going to stay in racing until I‘m 65 and be in the garage area and head down the ladder, being at a non-competitive team. If I can‘t go win races, I will remove myself from the sport and move onto my next venture.”
The opening 24 races of the season have gone splendid for Gayle, as he’s won eight times with three different drivers (the No. 54 car won at Road America as well, but Gayle was leading Ty Gibbs in the No. 81 Toyota). In one-off starts, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin were both in contention to win. The No. 54 car has led 810 of 3,326 total laps this year (24.4%)
He believes, however, the team has left a few race wins on the table, which is frustrating.
“If we can still get two or three wins, with what we‘ve done with Ty, I feel like we‘ve had a good season,” Gayle added. “I don‘t think I could have scripted it any better besides that.”
Like he did with Jones, Gayle has played a pivotal role in Gibbs’ development as an Xfinity driver. In 12 races, Gibbs has captured three checkered flags.
“I have a really good relationship with Chris and I think that means a lot,” Gibbs said. “As a driver, I feel like that helps when he knows what I want and he‘s really good at knowing my feedback and what I‘m asking for.”
There’s no doubt about it, Gayle wants to return to the Cup Series one day. Knowing how the racing industry works, he said, it’s hard to plan more than a year out. So no matter who he spoke with, he couldn’t get a clear cut answer on how to get back to Cup.
But calling the shots for Gibbs, who is likely a future Cup superstar, isn’t a bad start.
“I think what my best thing here was thinking I was going to align myself with what I think is going to be a Cup driver of the future in Ty and that I need to run really well and do a great job of grooming him,” he said. “That doesn‘t assure it because who knows what could happen. He‘s set some records on the Xfinity side this year for rookie guys, but none of us know a year or two out what could happen.
“I think I‘m going to take it race by race and try to win the next race. Once we solidify everything we‘ll see where it lies from there.”