Finding his rhythm: Ty Gibbs aims to make sweet music in rookie season

LAS VEGAS — With the rapid pace of Ty Gibbs’ progression to the NASCAR Cup Series and his so-far-ageless talent, crew chief Chris Gayle says sometimes he can forget his driver is a mere 20 years old. He forgets, that is, until the music comes on.

“I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I am old enough to be your dad,’ ” Gayle says with a laugh from the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing hauler. Explaining just how wide the generational span in their playlists is, he says he feels all of his 47 years.

“I would be much more mid-’80s songs, and he’s listening to whatever hip-hop is current,” Gayle adds. “He’s listening to Drake and things like I’m probably not even current on. I have no idea what he’s listening to, so it’s just a realization that he’s listening to something way different than I would. … And that I’m dated. Makes me realize I’m a dinosaur.”

His crew chief’s admission gave Gibbs a chance to share that laugh.

“The thing is, I love music, of course, and I enjoy listening to it,” Gibbs says. “And so I know all the songs — all the old rap, the new rap, I know it all. They’re probably listening to some different stuff up there than I’ve ever listened to, so I guess I just put a little bit of kick into it. I guess it’s the younger generation.”

Gibbs has been able to find the proper rhythm in his quick rise to the top level of NASCAR and a prime perch in the four-team stable of his family’s racing organization. The grandson of Coach Joe Gibbs has driven to his own drumbeat thus far; any missed notes along the way, he says he’s aimed to learn from them.

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The younger Gibbs’ first full year at the Cup Series level takes its next turn at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, site of Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM). The 1.5-mile Nevada venue is also where Gibbs scored the first of seven Xfinity Series victories last season en route to that circuit’s championship.

The crew chief for Gibbs that season was the same pseudo-jurassic partner he has atop the pit box this year. When Kyle Busch departed JGR after the 2022 campaign, the slot opened for Gibbs to make the leap to the Cup Series level full-time. Gayle, who spent the last two seasons in the Xfinity Series, says he was more than ready to make it back to NASCAR’s majors, where he called the shots for Erik Jones’ JGR tenure from 2017-2020.

Ty Gibbs and crew chief Chris Gayle in the Cup Series garage at Charlotte Motor Speedway
Ty Gibbs and crew chief Chris Gayle in the Cup Series garage at Charlotte Motor Speedway

“I think that’s just the thing that we both knew was gonna happen,” Gibbs says. “We’re always going to be hopefully working with each other, so I think that’s very special. And I think with long-term crew chiefs, you see a lot of positive gains from that.”

Those gains are already paying off in the short term. Gayle recounted a trying day this past week in the simulator, but instead of having the frustration mount, the crew chief was able to steer his pupil toward the positives, picking up on the cues he was offering during the session.

“I don’t know that it 100% is like the be-all, end-all,” Gayle says about their continuity, “but I think what does help is, there is a familiarity between Ty and I where we spent a year and a half together, and I do know how he communicates, how he talks about the car, those kinds of things that I think is just a little easier to do when you have somebody in the mix who has some experience with him.”

There’s been plenty to learn from in the rough-tumble last year and a half, with the soaring highs and successes dotted with some noteworthy on-track lows. Gibbs was also pressed into Cup Series duty earlier than expected, filling in with Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan’s 23XI Racing outfit when Kurt Busch’s head injury sidelined him from the end of July through the end of the season.

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That accelerated timetable to Cup landed Gibbs on NASCAR’s biggest platform, but his Xfinity Series experience last year also put his name in the headlines. Two notable incidents at Martinsville Speedway, including a playoff run-in that cost then-teammate Brandon Jones a shot at the Xfinity crown, stood out.

It’s those instances where Gibbs says he’s taken the lessons as they come and tried to be better for it.

“I think just learning from your mistakes, not dwelling on the past, and then looking at the bigger picture,” Gibbs says of his key learnings. “I think I grew up in, I feel like, the best family to be having thick skin. I think my grandfather, my father, and my uncle and my whole family made it through with a lot of thick skin. I think that’s something in life, I’m very happy where I am. And I think you learn through that, through suffering sometimes, and you learn about your mistakes and learn the hard way.”

Gayle agreed, adding the virtue of patience to the list of takeaways.

“I think he’s learned a lot about when to press certain things when not to press certain things,” Gayle says. “And I think he would tell you that there are some of those situations last year, maybe he didn’t necessarily realize that some of the impressions were as bad or that he was going to get bad feedback and backlash from some of them. But I will tell you, the one thing that Ty has always been is very tough-skinned, thick-skinned like the whole family — (his father) Coy, Coach, all of them have done a great job. When you’re in this kind of situation, where you’re thrust into the spotlight, you really have to be that way, or you’re going to live and die with everything that might be on social media and everything, especially when you’re a young kid.”

Setting a course for 2023

Gibbs has reached milestone points quickly in his racing career — an ARCA East winner at 16, an Xfinity winner at 18, an ARCA Menards Series title winner at 19, an Xfinity champion at 20. Marking off similar accomplishments at the Cup Series level may come in time, but driver and crew chief have different mindsets on where to set the bar for the No. 54 team this season.

“Ty’s goals and my goals will not necessarily line up,” Gayle says with a smile. “I want Ty to be as aggressive as possible and to want to try to win as much as possible and set his goals very high, and I didn’t need to push him to do that. That’s just how he is naturally, I think that there have been, we’ve had conversations that he’s been like, ‘If I can’t win, I can’t be competitive and can’t do it, I’m just not gonna do it. I want to be competitive if I’m going to do this. If I’m going to be in, I’m going to be all-in, and I want to be able to be competitive. I’m not here just to say I’m in the Cup Series and just to run. I want to win races,’ which is great. Now me on the other side of that coin, I want him to be that way, and I want it to turn out better than he expects it. … He understands where I’m coming from, he still wants more. But what I want to be as the voice of reason where if we don’t reach his lofty goals halfway into the season that no panic sets in for him.”

Gayle, a self-proclaimed “stats guy,” said he researched the numbers put up by rookie contenders over the last 17 Cup Series seasons to have a standard of comparison for Gibbs’ year ahead. Whatever percentile he winds up reaching, Gibbs seems unconcerned with the effects.

“I just feel like for me, I don’t want to set a limit on myself,” Gibbs says. “Say I can run really great when our goals are a top 10, top five. I just look at it the same way, I look at it as a mission, and I’m going to do the best I can. And if I can’t complete the missions, I’m still going to do the best I can trying to complete it. … Goals, I feel like, if you don’t make them, then you get upset and people get all spun out about it.”

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On the list of potential check boxes is the Sunoco Rookie of the Year hunt, which matches Gibbs head-to-head with a familiar rival in Noah Gragson, who also made the jump to Cup this year with the Legacy Motor Club group. The two have traded on-track bumps and off-track barbs as fierce competitors, and their war of words escalated last year as the season wound down.

It was Gragson who wound up as the season-ending runner-up, just 0.397 seconds behind Gibbs at the Phoenix Raceway finale’s checkered flag. But it was also Gragson who gave his adversary a magnanimous show of respect with a post-race handshake as a tip of his cap.

“He did a great job last year, and I know we always didn’t see eye to eye and maybe a lot of other people didn’t see eye to eye but when somebody does a good job as a competitor, you have to recognize it and man up,” Gragson recalled. “He flat-out beat us that race. … I congratulated him and I was happy for him because he did a good job. Yeah, we might not have seen eye to eye, but you’ve got to respect the fact of the matter.”

The gesture also resonated with Gayle. “As much as they didn’t like each other at different times and got into it, there were two really good races between Pocono and Phoenix that those two guys dueled it out, and neither one of them touched each other the whole race. One, Ty came out on top at the end, the other one Noah won, so it is interesting that now here they are running for it again.”

Even if the goals aren’t necessarily spelled out, Gibbs is bent on continuing to grow. He’s treating the knowledge he absorbed in his 15-race stint with 23XI last year as a precious commodity, and he has a budding chemistry with Gayle atop the pit box — even if their playlists don’t exactly play the same tune.

“I think just looking at it, I have a great opportunity to do the best I can, to learn as much as I can,” Gibbs says. “With the limited time I had in that car, being thrown in in the middle of the year. I thank Denny and Michael for the opportunity, and it’s very valuable time I had. It gives me great experience for this year — a thousand percent. I would be lying if I said no.”