Ty Gibbs was always going to be a NASCAR Cup Series driver; there’s been little doubt about that ever since he broke onto the national scene by winning his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut last year at the Daytona International Speedway road course.
The timing and logistics of that move, however, have been murkier. Despite four wins in 18 Xfinity starts in 2021, Gibbs still needed a full season to really show what he was made of, that his early success at Joe Gibbs Racing wasn’t a fluke based on the resources being given to a car that also featured Cup regulars.
Mission accomplished so far in 2022. Four more wins, a 10.2 average finish and a third-place points position entering the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course this weekend.
OK, but then there was team owner/grandfather Joe Gibbs’ statement earlier this year that he wanted Ty in an Xfinity car for at least two years.
And the general blockade at JGR on the Cup level, ostensibly Gibbs’ eventual destination, too. Denny Hamlin is good through at least 2023. Martin Truex Jr. is there through next year. Christopher Bell‘s status is unknown but he did at least just win a race. And Kyle Busch certainly wouldn’t leave JGR, right? … right?
Fast forward to this week. Busch’s whereabouts past 2022 have come into question as his team and JGR struggle to come to an agreement on a contract extension. A 15-season partnership could be coming to an end after the checkered flag flies at Phoenix Raceway in November.
What’s more: Gibbs is ready to go Cup racing. Pocono Raceway made that clear.
Last weekend, Gibbs made his Cup debut, filling in for the injured Kurt Busch at 23XI Racing. He did so on hours’ notice, stepping into the No. 45 once Busch was announced as without medical clearance on Sunday morning, July 24.
On the surface, it might have seemed like an inauspicious effort. He crossed the line 18th at race’s end, bumped up to 16th in the record books after Hamlin and Kyle Busch were disqualified post-race. A top 20 is going to be a good start for most debuting drivers, but after all the hype Gibbs had coming in, did it really raise any eyebrows?
Well, yeah. After starting at the tail end of the field due to the driver change, Gibbs was only 32nd mid-race. But he began to climb in the second half, rising as high as fourth and running near the top 10 late before eventually coming home 16th.
And consider this: that was done in a car that had not yet been on track due to the team’s primary being taken out of commission after Kurt Busch’s qualifying accident. And by a driver who’d never been in a Cup car, not even in a testing capacity.
That’s no small feat. While the Next Gen Cup car has equaled the playing field to some extent in 2022, it’s a different-enough car that simply stepping out of an Xfinity car and into a Cup one should come with some growing pains, especially when the driver’s first laps are in race conditions sans the benefit of practice.
Gibbs was able to figure out the Next Gen and get the car toward the front within the course of one race. By the end, he had the No. 45 basically in line with Busch’s average finish in 2022, which is 16.9. There’s no guarantee Busch would have been much better at Pocono that day, or much worse.
Raw talent, that’s the conclusion. Gibbs has it. It was assumed thanks to the Xfinity success, but Pocono solidifies it. And with yesterday’s (July 27) announcement that he’ll be in the car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course this weekend, too, there’s a strong chance we’ll be seeing even more of Gibbs on screen, given that his first Xfinity win and three of his eight victories in the series total have come on road courses.
So let’s throw out Joe Gibbs’ proclamation of a two-season Xfinity deal. It just isn’t necessary. Let’s not beat around the bush any more than we already have.
The possibility of the No. 18 being open next year is icing on the cake. If Kyle Busch is gone after 2022, why bother slotting someone else into the ride in the meantime? As far as JGR’s other prospects go, Brandon Jones has really shown no more this year than he ever has, and of the part-timers in the Xfinity No. 18, only Sammy Smith seems to figure into JGR’s plans long term. Move Gibbs up and boom, problem solved.
Unless, of course, Busch actually comes back next year. Which could happen! His status for 2023 has gone from a likely return to lol-who-the-hell-knows in the last few days. A week from now we might be looking back on all this discourse and laughing at merely considering the idea that Busch could be gone from JGR. Silly Season, y’all.
Even if that happens, JGR needs to find a way to get Gibbs into a Cup car. That could come in a bona fide JGR Cup car, but it’d likely be at the expense of Bell, who’s had a good year and doesn’t really deserve to be kicked to the curb.
Instead, JGR should at minimum consider an arrangement with 23XI, something that’s already been established as a possibility with Gibbs filling in for Kurt Busch in the No. 45. Busch should in theory be back next year (unless the injury sidelining him ends up the final straw for his driving career), and Bubba Wallace appears set in the No. 23. Should 23XI then figure out a third car, acquiring a charter in the process, for Gibbs to drive? As long as Toyota helps foot the bill (and it should, since Gibbs is easily its most promising prospect), absolutely. Hell, even if 23XI owners Hamlin and Michael Jordan had to shell out a significant amount of their own cash to do so, the upside seems worth it.
Because Gibbs is increasingly showing that he’s ready. So why delay the inevitable? Let’s see him in a Cup car next year.
About the author
Rutherford is the managing editor of Frontstretch, a position he gained in 2015 after serving on the editing staff for two years. At his day job, he's a journalist covering music and rock charts at Billboard. He lives in New York City, but his heart is in Ohio -- you know, like that Hawthorne Heights song.
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