The meteoric rise Ty Gibbs has been on since first sitting in a race car took an unexpected turn on Sunday when he was thrust into the Cup Series as a substitute driver.
And not just for any driver, but a series champion in Kurt Busch. And not for just any team but one co-owned by Toyota teammate Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan.
Gibbs, 19, found out he’d be competing in the big leagues late on Saturday after finishing second in the Xfinity Series race at Pocono Raceway. He sat on the side of the highway somewhere in Pennsylvania – given the circumstances, he couldn’t remember where – and took it all in before shifting into what he needed to do to prepare.
Gibbs was on the simulator at 1 a.m. trying to get experience in the Next Gen car and then at the track when the garage opened at noon to work with the team getting the cockpit adjusted for him. The fire suit he wore was Kurt Busch’s with Busch’s name on the belt and the Cup Series champion logo below the shoulder. The shoes came from Denny Hamlin’s closest.
“I never thought I’d be able to be at this level no matter what anybody says or where I came from,” Gibbs said while surrounded by media after a 16th place finish. “It’s just super cool. The future hits fast, I guess.
“I’m already making my Cup Series debut, and I graduated high school last year, and I was in fourth grade about, I feel like, two months ago. All of this is crazy.”
On the track, Gibbs had a relatively quiet debut. The No.45 Toyota returned to pit road after the checkered flag in one piece, and Gibbs stayed on the lead lap all afternoon. He cycled into the top 10 at one point during a round of green flag pit stops and crossed the finish line 18th.
A double disqualification for two Joe Gibbs Racing cars gave Gibbs two additional spots in the final rundown.
Everything Gibbs dealt with on Sunday was brand-new. A digital dashboard and rearview camera were new, as was a sequential shifter. Having only seen a Next Gen car before, he sat in one and drove it for the first time on Sunday.
Throughout the race, the team could be heard coaching Gibbs as much as possible. From giving feedback on his arching into the corner to shifting quicker and even braking. It took him until about the second stage to feel comfortable and understand how he could push the car.
Of getting a feel of Cup Series competition and the depth of field, Gibbs noted, “I feel like it’s the top five in the Xfinity Series extended out to 20th or 25th. It’s definitely different, but if your car handles well, I think you can just drive through there. Especially a driver with experience.”
For not having any expectations going into the race, Gibbs will take his top 20 finish and walk away happy. Although like any driver, he wanted more.
“I’ll take that,” Gibbs said. “I still wish I could have put it together a little bit quicker, but these are experiences for me in my life that I’ll learn, and I’ll take hold of and always remember how it felt and how it was in [my] Cup debut.”
Proud grandfather Joe Gibbs could see that from Ty, too. But the Hall of Fame team owner also thinks Ty realized how tough Cup Series racing is.
Chris Gayle is the crew chief for Gibbs in the Xfinity Series and has worked with the young driver for quite a while. Gayle was called into action late Saturday to collect parts and pieces and Gibbs’s helmet when Busch’s availability became fluid.
“Thankfully, we stopped the [Xfinity] hauler before we had to chase it down the road and got that stuff,” Gayle said.
Gayle went home Saturday night but then flew back to Pocono to watch Gibbs make his debut. It was clear Gayle was as proud as anyone and said Gibbs did exactly what he needed to in running all the laps and trying not to make mistakes.
“I don’t think any of us … like we were hoping for a top 20 [finish], and he was able to do that – so it’s a great day for him,” said Gayle.
Gayle was just one of many who spoke with Gibbs after the race. Bubba Wallace came over, there were fist bumps from 23XI Racing team members, and Tyler Reddick spent time breaking down the race with Gibbs as they waited to do their post-race media availabilities.
“We’ve talked about things like this,” Gayle said. “To see him succeed at what he wants to do that’s what’s cool. For me, this is a long family affair after having to do a lot with his dad [Coy] in the past and seeing this with Ty, it’s satisfying. It’s fun.”
Gibbs revealed he “definitely” got a lot out of running a Cup Series race and learned just as much. Including how aero sensitive the cars were and dirty air being a big deal.
“The aero was definitely a lot worse than I ever experienced,” Gibbs said. “That was definitely different and a little frustrating, but that’s just racing.”
And race Gibbs did. In the Cup Series on a Sunday afternoon with the best in the business, and when he least expected it to happen and maybe far sooner, too. But it’ll be 24 hours at Pocono that Gibbs will never forget.
“The chaos,” he said of the turn of events. “It was a whirlwind for sure.”