By Dustin Albino

BRISTOL, Tenn. — The rookie almost did it. 

After 500 laps at one of NASCAR‘s toughest racetracks, Ty Gibbs climbed from his No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota and put his hands on his hips, bummed about his finish. Among the first people he interacted with was six-time winner at Bristol Motor Speedway, Kurt Busch. 

Moments later, Gibbs‘ crew chief Chris Gayle stopped over for a debrief. Then, it was his grandfather and team owner, Joe Gibbs. All were boosting the rookie‘s spirits after his best race at the Cup Series level. 

“It just feels like I need to be better in some different areas,” Gibbs said after talking to some of his mentors. 

Since breaking on to the NASCAR national touring scene in 2021, Gibbs has always been hard on himself in defeat. But he had also never led more than four laps in a single race across his first 43 Cup Series starts. On Saturday evening at “Thunder Valley,” the rookie driver led 102 laps, one of three JGR drivers to lead north of 100 laps.

Looking at Friday‘s practice results, it was clear Gibbs could be a factor for the race. The No. 54 car ranked fourth in single-lap speed and was the quickest car by most metrics on long-run pace. Yet he qualified eighth, the worst of the four JGR drivers.

Gibbs‘ speed was prevalent during the opening stage, cracking the top five. He finished 10th in the stage, the best of the drivers who pitted multiple times during the first 125 laps. 

In the second stage, Gibbs earned his best stage finish of the season, placing second to Christopher Bell. His No. 54 pit crew, formerly Bell‘s No. 20 team, got him off pit road first to begin the final stage. That‘s when he shined. 

For 98 consecutive laps, Gibbs led the field. Denny Hamlin tracked him down in lapped traffic, passing him for a single lap before Gibbs got back by and led four more circuits. Hamlin eventually got by again and didn‘t look back, going on to win his third race of the season. 

When Martin Truex Jr. brought out the caution on lap 363 for brushing the frontstretch wall, Gibbs dropped a few more positions in the pits. He couldn‘t recover for the remainder of the race and finished fifth for the third time this season, matching his best career result. 

“Track position was really important tonight,” Gibbs added. “I think the pit crew did an amazing job. All of their stops were really solid. I just need to fix myself.

 “I think we were really fast; the speed shows it. I just need to do a better job with my feedback.”

Gayle was proud of his driver. When they wrecked out in the regular season finale at Daytona, they came up with objectives for the final 10 races of the season. The main objective was to continue improving with the hopes of being a frequent top five competitor. 

“It‘s great to be bummed with fifth, right?” Gayle said. “I look at it like when we didn‘t make the playoffs, we were disappointed. But one thing we talked about was staying on it, doing everything we can, trying to get a win and if we can‘t get wins, get top fives. We set some goals for all those tiers at the beginning of the year, so this helps with that. 

“I‘m just proud of him. He was on it on restarts and learned a bunch running with his guys he hadn‘t been racing, so he picks up a little more of that each time. I think that‘s what is important to me, he had a good, solid day.”

Joe Gibbs was proud of his grandson. Being successful as a rookie at the Cup level takes a lot of grit and determination. He saw that on Saturday.  

“I think he was in the middle of a race there, really felt good, really fast,” Joe noted. “We just appreciate the fact that he understands this. You got to earn your way. He’s got to keep fighting and we’ll just see because there’s no way to talk your way or buy your way. You got to race your way.”

Neither Gibbs nor Gayle would go as far as saying Bristol was the No. 54 team‘s best race of the season. But it ranks right up there with Watkins Glen and Pocono, where he also finished fifth. Gayle also pointed to Kansas in May, believing the No. 54 team had what it took to win that race. Ultimately, a wreck took them out of contention.

“I think that definitely, minus qualifying a little bit better, this was a good, solid weekend for us,” Gayle said. “It was probably our best or next best.”

Gibbs takes the blame, however, believing he must do a better job. He has eight top 10s this year.

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