Chris Gayle did not want to leave the NASCAR Cup Series when Joe Gibbs Racing relocated him in 2021 to work with Ty Gibbs. It was a move that left Gayle with an admitted chip on his shoulder, determined to prove he was better than many might have thought, and putting him in charge of the No. 54 Xfinity Series team was a mistake.
In two seasons, Gayle did just that. Of the multiple drivers he worked with in 2021, including Gibbs, the team won 10 times. Gibbs won seven times last year as he and Gayle won the drivers’ championship.
The two are still together as Gayle has made it back in the Cup Series, guiding Gibbs (pictured at left, above, with Gayle) in his rookie season. And as the veteran crew chief looks back, he has a much different perspective and appreciation for the turn his career took.
“I am as hungry as ever to win,” Gayle recently told RACER. “I feel like Ty has the talent to do it. But I’m also much wiser than when I did it with Erik (Jones) before; we were both rookies at the same time. So, I probably made more mistakes then. I realize it’s a different car now, but at least I’m very aware of the mistakes I may have made pushing in times I maybe didn’t need to with a rookie.
“This is where I want to be, and I want to sustain myself in this garage. Which means we’ve got to go out and win races right away. That’s just the truth of it.”
Ironically, Gayle believes it might be even tougher to do that now with the Next Gen car. Building an advantage is harder for teams with the field a bit closer together. Even though he wasn’t in the series last year, Gayle is aware of how many winners there were (19).
Getting his bearings with the car has been more challenging than expected. And it’s not that Gayle feels a year behind the competition, with much learning and experimenting with the car that was going on most of last year.
“At best, half of that is what you need to remember,” Gayle said. “I feel like I can come in and focus on the last 12 races or so and all those racetracks that are similar to everything you’re going to have this year, and just look at that and say, ‘OK, I don’t need to know all the bad things. They’ve weeded that out for me.’”
Fontana was the first weekend Gayle was hit with race adjustments. Teams are in a much smaller box with Next Gen in terms of what they can do, where they can be innovative and how the car differs in its adjustments. Gayle wouldn’t say he was surprised but frustrated with how limited he found his toolbox during a race.
“You realize it’s a totally different time in the sport,” Gayle said of the mindset change. “Most of these crew chiefs — and I understand — don’t like it for that reason. We’ve spent years and years trying to build a better mousetrap, and now you just give us the mousetrap and we can barely do anything with it.”
There is no learning curve between Gayle and Gibbs because while the series is different, sticking together was the best-case scenario. Gibbs ran 15 races last season for 23XI Racing as a substitute for the injured Kurt Busch, so the newness of the series and car has worn off for him. And as Gayle re-acclimates himself to the Cup Series garage and its policies, he does not have to learn a new driver.
Gayle knows what Gibbs wants or can quickly identify a problem when Ty gives feedback. Gayle also knows his driver’s work ethic and how Gibbs likes to do things.
Through the first few weeks, Gayle has been pleased with the “decent speed” the team’s shown. While execution could be better, Gayle said at least they aren’t behind the eight-ball and buried in the point standings.
“I feel like we’re sitting in an OK spot for where we should be with a new team and driver,” Gayle said. “I feel like it’s gone OK, so far. We’ll see.”
Gibbs would say that he expects to win every race and is here to compete for wins and championships. It’s a mindset that Gayle isn’t going to try to change, but the veteran crew chief can be realistic for both of them.
“My personal opinion — and this is based in lots of stats on rookies for the last 17 years –we need to be consistently running in the top 15 right now,” Gayle said. “For us, if we’re 15th or better that’s a good day. Running 15th or worse, no, we’ve had trouble. But if we can have a clean day and finish 15th or better.
“A top 10 would be great right now, but I think we need to crawl before we can walk. And I understand — I know he has that fire and wants to be competitive and you want him to have that, but someone has to make it to where every week when you don’t win the race, it doesn’t feel like a total failure. So, for me, 15th or better, early in the year. Then you start looking at how we need to be in the top 10.
“We still need to contend for a win this year. We need to win a race. But if I just look at last year (in Cup), he doesn’t have a big sample of races, and he was more focused on the Xfinity Series championship. This was just laps for him last year.”
With seat time already under Gibbs, Gayle said he could focus on improving his results and race craft. And in the process, Gibbs joins his crew chief in proving a point.
“Ty had a rough offseason, and I think getting back into the weekly grind and having a nice rhythm of things he needs to do will be beneficial for him,” Gayle said. “He really wants to do this. His mindset is, ‘I’m going to prove everybody wrong, and I’m going to outwork everybody in the garage.’ So far, so good.”