With how Ty Gibbs performed in his rookie Xfinity Series season in 2021, the sky was the limit in his first full-time season in 2022.
For the most part, Gibbs has lived up to the hype.
“If you look at expectations and think about it, you look at last year and he won four out of 18 races,” Chris Gayle, crew chief to Gibbs‘ No. 54 Toyota told Jayski.com, last week. “That‘s a pretty high win percentage. To stay on that pace when you start increasing more and more races is really tough to do.”
Indeed, it is. Winning four of his first 17 starts in 2021 is a 23.5 win percentage. That‘s nearing Kyle Busch territory in frequency of wins, though the 2009 series champion sits at 28.2% after 362 starts.
Gibbs got off to a strong start in 2022. The No. 54 car found Victory Lane for the first time in the third event of the season at Las Vegas. He won the first Xfinity race at the reconfigured Atlanta two weeks later. And two weeks after that, he won at Richmond, bumping teammate John Hunter Nemechek out of the way on the final lap. Yup, he was sitting at three checkered flags through the first seven races.
He was close to going 50% through the first eight, leading 197 of 261 laps at Martinsville. But on a green-white-checkered restart, he was bumped from the lead while Brandon Jones picked up his lone win of the regular season. After the checkered flag, Gibbs and Sam Mayer, his arch nemesis, got in a fight.
Being aggressive — maybe too aggressive — was the story of Gibbs‘ first few months as a full-time Xfinity driver. He spun Ryan Sieg out of the way prior to winning in Sin City, leading to a stern talking — and eventual attempt at retaliation — from the veteran driver.
Since the fight at Martinsville, it‘s safe to say Gibbs worked on his reputation while still racing hard.
“I think what he learned is when to push, when not to push, when does it make sense?” Gayle said. “I wouldn‘t say all of those scenarios are exactly the same that he may have. Some were different, but you get painted with the same brush when you have a few of them. Even though they are slightly different scenarios, it‘s all being too aggressive.
“He‘s being smarter and racing savvy.”
Gayle alluded to having conversations with Gibbs about his aggressiveness. The 19-year-old also leaned on other drivers within the Toyota camp.
“I think he‘s had some time to grow and that‘s what this year is going to be about,” Gayle said. “It‘s what it was always about.”
The biggest thing Gibbs has learned, he said, was how to win on a regular basis at this level. With additional wins at Road America when he outdueled Kyle Larson on a late restart and Michigan, the No. 54 team enters the postseason with five checkered flags and a total of 38 playoff points. After getting wrecked from the top five at Bristol last weekend, he dropped to third in the regular season standings.
And while Gibbs believes the No. 54 team has left a few wins on the table, including the last two races at Bristol and Kansas, it‘s been a formidable season.
“I definitely think they‘re very strong chances and we just have to make it to Phoenix,” Gibbs said of his playoff outlook. “We just have to go win and let it take care of itself.”
The opening round of the playoffs consist of Texas, Talladega and the Charlotte ROVAL. Two of those tracks are potential wild cards, while Texas is the most straight forward, intermediate layout. In the past, championship favorites have seen their points buffer evaporate with mediocre finishes at Talladega and the ROVAL.
“Texas is one where you can probably go in and control your own destiny, so we need to get all the points out of that one if we can‘t win it,” Gayle added. “In those next two, we need to avoid any major issues. I feel like with the playoff points cushion we have, we should be OK through the first round, but you just never know.”
Should Gibbs make it clear to the Round of 8, he‘s been competitive at two of those tracks: Las Vegas (the aforementioned win earlier this year) and Martinsville. He has never raced at Homestead, however.
“It‘s a tough place to run when you‘re going to run the wall late in the runs and need to avoid making contact and taking yourself out of the race,” Gayle said of Homestead. “That‘s another tough one once we get to the second point that we need to be worried about.”
Gibbs isn‘t too concerned with Homestead, stating, “If you work hard and prepare, I don‘t think there‘s any worries.” He will take part in the Next Gen test at the track on Wednesday, Sept. 21, to get his feet wet with 23XI Racing.
With 12 wins this season, Gayle views JR Motorsports as the No. 54 team‘s toughest competitor, specifically Noah Gragson and Justin Allgaier. Gragson‘s No. 9 team has won three straight races entering the playoffs, taking away 15 potential playoff points from Gibbs. Gayle won‘t rule out a potential deep run from AJ Allmendinger either, who maximized the 26 races and won the regular season championship, even with a lack of speed.
Should Gibbs make it to Phoenix to battle for the Xfinity title, the No. 54 team is confident there, too, as Gibbs finished runner-up in his first start at the one-mile oval in 2021.
“I feel like we have a great notebook for that,” Gayle said.
He just wants to be sitting comfortably heading into Martinsville, the cutoff race to the Championship 4. That‘s a half-mile track where he believes desperate times can call for desperate measures.
Is it championship or bust for Gibbs, who is likely spending his lone full season in the Xfinity Series this year.
“Just go do the best I can,” he said.