AVONDALE, ARIZ. — After arguably the most controversial week of the 20-year-old driver’s career, Ty Gibbs upset three JR Motorsports drivers Saturday night to earn his first NASCAR championship.
Gibbs earned his 11th career NASCAR Xfinity Series win Saturday night at Phoenix Raceway. Most importantly, he earned the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship and became the first NASCAR national series champion born in the 21st century.
Gibbs led 125 laps and raced closely with Noah Gragson, Justin Allgaier and Josh Berry throughout the day to beat them in the championship.
“I felt like we had a great race with those guys. Great job to JR Motorsports, but the 25 percent won,” Gibbs said. “Awesome job. Thank you to all the guys. Had an awesome time racing in the Xfinity Series this year, and looking for more and I’m very excited. Thank you for everybody. We’re champions.”
Despite talk during the week, the racing remained clean and close, side-by-side for laps-on-end – even as Gibbs passed and lapped JR Motorsports driver and rival Sam Mayer and Gragson tried a last-ditch, last-turn move.
After the race, Mayer tweeted that Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat all four drivers down and emphasized that the championship should be won with respect.
In the stands, fans showed little respect for Gibbs as he was met with cacophonous boos from the crowd. Onlooking was grandfather and car owner Joe Gibbs, who David Wilson said was “distraught” over similar boos at Martinsville.
“I remember the Sunday morning after Martinsville, one, talking to his grandfather, talking to Coach Gibbs, but I was talking to his grandfather, not to Joe Gibbs,” Wilson said. “He was terribly distraught because the last thing he wanted for his grandson was for him to be disliked from the fans.”
The perception has carried on the other side of the fence at times, with drivers like Noah Gragson, who finished second to Gibbs in the championship.
“I’ve had conversations with Ty and let him know how I felt, let him know if he gets into us, what the consequences are going to be, and I used to be buddies with him when he was younger but,I told him that, ‘Hey, you used to be a super cool kid and you kind of turned into a little bit of a douchebag,” Gragson recalled.
Despite the overwhelming reaction toward Gibbs at times, Wilson – who has seen his share of drivers in his time – doesn’t believe the young driver’s perception is set in stone yet. And Gragson also agrees.
“I believe that through his actions, through his words, through his sincerity that he can recover and be who he wants to be, be who he believes he is. But honestly, that’s up to him,” he stated. “We’re going to have to see how that plays out over his career. He’s going to be arguably in the sport another 15, 20 years, we hope.”
“He can still grow from it, and he did a great job. They won the race fair and square today. It takes great people around you to learn, and I think he is capable. He has the potential to learn,” Gragson said. “He’s a great race car driver, and I’ve been in those shoes, too, where it just seems like you can’t do nothing right, and it’s you against the world and whatnot.”
Earlier in the year, at Road America in July, Gragson faced scrutiny and penalties – 30 driver and owner points docked and a $30,000 fine – for spinning Sage Karam and triggering a 15-car wreck.
In the 17 races since then, Gragson netted 6 wins and 15 top-10 finishes, including his second-place effort where he led 35 laps Saturday night. After the loss, he greeted Gibbs and his team with handshakes and signs of respect.
Now, he moves on to the NASCAR Cup Series with Petty-GMS Motorsports where more challenges lie ahead.
“For a young guy like myself who’s moving up to the Cup level, it’s going to be a rude awakening. It really is,” Gragson said. “Every lap, every restart, every trip down pit road, every single time, everybody is good in the whole entire field. You’re not racing 10 guys, you’re racing 30 guys, so it’s a lot harder. I really do feel like the sky’s the limit with this team, and we’re going to have to work hard.”
In third was Justin Allgaier, who led 26 laps. Josh Berry finished fourth in the championship but 13th in the race after hitting the wall late.