Archrivals Ty Gibbs and Noah Gragson Don’t Have Much to Brag About 2 Races Into Their Rookie Cup Season
As NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers last season, Ty Gibbs and Noah Gragson finished 1-2 in the championship standings, combined for 15 victories, and were basically in a league of their own compared to the competition despite being bitter rivals.
This season — their first as full-time NASCAR Cup Series drivers — hasn’t gone quite so well.
Two races into the 2023 campaign, neither of the two rookies has recorded a top-15 finish, and neither would make the playoffs if the 16-driver championship field were locked in today.
But just how wide of the mark have Gibbs and Gragson been so far? This is what we’ll look at next.
Ty Gibbs is off to a slow start but feels hopeful in Vegas
Over the season-and-a-half that Ty Gibbs spent in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, the grandson of legendary team owner Joe Gibbs posted 11 wins in 51 starts. That’s pretty impressive, especially when you consider the youngster did most of his damage at the age of 19.
Gibbs’ finest hour came in the 2022 season finale at Phoenix, where he drove a flawless race to edge Noah Gragson for the win and the championship by less than four-tenths of a second while leading 125 of 200 laps.
Although the notoriously aggressive young driver from Huntersville, North Carolina, actually made 15 Cup Series starts last year as a fill-in for injured Kurt Busch at 23XI Racing, he still has less than half a season of seat time in a Cup Series car, and it’s showed in his first two races this season as the now full-time driver of Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 54 Toyota in NASCAR’s premier division.
While Gibbs hasn’t been terrible, his 25th-place finish in the Daytona 500 and 16th-place finish last weekend at Auto Club Speedway weren’t anything to write home about. The now 20-year-old wheelman didn’t lead a lap in either race, and he ranks 17th in the standings — just outside the playoff cutline but still outside it, nevertheless.
This weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Gibbs is hoping for a better outcome more along the lines of the kind of performances he’s been accustomed to the last two years in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
“I like going to Las Vegas, and the track is fun to drive,” Gibbs, speaking in a prerace news release from his team, said of the 1.5-mile track where he went to Victory Lane in Xfinity Series competition one year ago. “We won the Xfinity race there last year, so, hopefully, we can build on that and run well in the Cup car. We had a cut tire at Daytona and were in an accident at Fontana that damaged the nose on our car, but we’ve run well for the most part. I’m ready to see what we can do.”
While Gibbs is undoubtedly experiencing the growing pains that are customary for almost everyone who makes the jump from the Xfinity Series to full-time Cup Series racing, he seems to have a way to go before he can be counted on to contend for victories, even on a semi-regular basis.
Noah Gragson has struggled even more than Ty Gibbs out of the gate
One of two full-time drivers for the recently rebranded Legacy Motor Club organization (formerly Petty GMS) co-owned by seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, Noah Gragson hasn’t looked anything like the driver who scored a NASCAR Xfinity Series-high eight victories a season ago.
In fact, he’s fared even worse overall this season than fierce rival and fellow rookie Ty Gibbs. Unlike Gibbs, who does have one top-20 finish to show for his efforts, Gragson has come home 24th and 22nd, respectively, in the first two races of 2023. He’s 27th in the standings, 10 spots behind Gibbs, who is with a much older and more experienced team.
Although the reliably gregarious Gragson certainly isn’t pleased with how his first two races as a full-time Cup Series driver have gone, he’s hardly throwing in the proverbial towel on salvaging a solid 2023. And just being back in his hometown of Las Vegas this weekend gives him extra reason to feel upbeat.
“I’m excited to keep building momentum with our car and the Legacy Motor Club team,” Gragson said in a news release from Team Chevy PR. “Coming back to my hometown, it’s always good to see family and friends, it’s always great anytime I can get back there, and there would be nothing sweeter than to run well at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.”
Gragson’s main goal for his rookie season is far more modest, however.
“Finish every lap right now — I think that’s all you really can do, realistically,” Gragson said during the preseason media day at Daytona a couple of weeks ago. “You obviously want to win, but I don’t know how realistic that is. We want to take the first third of the year or half the year, complete all the laps, and then we can re-evaluate from there.”
A little reevaluation will probably be in order based on Gragson’s poor start, which he’s trying not to sweat too much.
“I don’t put pressure on myself to perform,” Gragson said at preseason media day. “I just try to have as much as possible, but I try to be prepared. Being prepared is the most important part. As long as I’m prepared, there shouldn’t be a pressure to perform. You shouldn’t be nervous or anything when you’re prepared.”
Being prepared is good, but, of course, performing at a high level is better — and, like Gibbs, Gragson has yet to do this in Year One as a full-time Cup Series driver.