PHOENIX — A remorseful Ty Gibbs rolled into the NASCAR Xfinity Series portion of Championship 4 Media Day on Thursday, saying that his selfishness and over-aggressive move last weekend left his family’s racing organization with one fewer chance for a series title. Indeed, he’ll face three JR Motorsports teammates intent on shutting him out in Saturday’s finale.
But before a lap has been turned in Saturday’s Xfinity Series curtain-closer, the war of words has already ramped up, led by old foe Noah Gragson, who derisively called the title-eligible quartet “three and a half men.”
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“Just voicing my opinion, I don’t like him,” said Gragson, who spoke candidly and at length about his disdain for his rival. “It’s just speaking what everybody doesn’t want to say, but they feel it.”
Championship 4 Media Day included the return of trash-talking and gamesmanship to the pre-race festivities Thursday at the Phoenix Convention Center, with Gragson carrying the primary baton. Gragson will join teammates Justin Allgaier and Josh Berry in taking on Gibbs in Saturday’s Xfinity Series Championship race (6 p.m. ET, USA, NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM) at Phoenix Raceway.
The issue burbled up last Saturday at Martinsville Speedway, when the 20-year-old Gibbs bounced teammate Brandon Jones from the lead on the final lap of the series’ penultimate race. Gibbs had already locked into the Championship 4 field, but his bump of Jones’ No. 19 Toyota cost Joe Gibbs Racing another slot in the title-eligible field.
Jones will actually be leaving the organization at season’s end to join the JR Motorsports roster as Gragson’s replacement in the No. 9 Chevrolet. But Gibbs’ crash-inducing push had ripples and repercussions beyond the Martinsville moment, with fan opinion swaying far out of favor, and Coach Joe Gibbs – the team owner and young racer’s grandfather – saying that there would be consequences for the on-track actions.
“You know, going back if I could redo it multiple times, I would,” Gibbs said. “I’ve thought, I guess this scenario over millions of times, you know, and it’s hard for me because I have to live with it now. And it’s really hard, but we could have had two JGR cars, I guess, in the Championship 4, and I took that out. I took 50% of Toyota’s championship and ours, JGR’s championship away for my selfish actions. So I have to move forward and do the best I can to work and to fix these things.”
Gibbs said he had spoken with Jones after the incident, saying that he gained an understanding of Jones’ position while opting to keep other details of their conversation private. As for the potential consequences, Gibbs said he wasn’t aware of what that might entail but would accept whatever the team deemed necessary.
Dealing with that fallout has added another facet to Gibbs’ compelling pursuit of a championship in his first full year of Xfinity competition, and the specter of whether his aggression might rare up again with the title on the line.
“It’s definitely a great question to ask, but I just don’t want to be known as a dirty racer,” Gibbs said. “I want to be known as a class racer, and somebody who’s going to race hard, but not going to be dirty. And you know, I’ve been dirty and made my mistakes. But the only thing I can do now is work forward to changing that perspective.”
For Gragson, the repentance has been part of a pattern for Gibbs – show on-track aggression, apologize, vow to learn a lesson, rinse, repeat. The two rivals – one bound for the Cup Series next year and the other seemingly so – have locked horns multiple times in their head-to-head battles over the last two seasons, and Gragson said he confronted him face-to-face in June to let him know where the two stood.
Gragson didn’t hold back in expanding on that ahead of the season finale.
“I just think like, I’m just sick and tired of the ‘I’m sorry, I’m trying to learn’ deal,” Gragson said. “Like it’s been two years. … Definitely over being – I think all of us – the pinball of this series from him.”
The thought of Gibbs being potentially less aggressive in the final race, with his recent actions being top of mind? “He doesn’t care,” Gragson said. “He lives in fantasy land.”
And on Gibbs’ supposed lack of situational awareness: “I have no clue honestly what goes through his mind,” Gragson said. “God, it would be badass just to live in that kind of world where you just have no real consequences or anything.”
Asked why he doesn’t just pre-emptively crash Gibbs to prove his point, Gragson offered an alternate route: “I want to beat him straight up. It pisses him off a lot more.”
Regardless of the volume of the pre-race noise, a first-time champion will be crowned in the Xfinity Series this year from this intriguing four-driver composite. Gragson and Gibbs are young prospects aiming to cap impressive seasons as they near their Cup Series futures; in Allgaier and Berry, two veteran 30-somethings have a long-awaited national-series title in their reach – Allgaier after a journeyman’s career in Xfinity, and Berry after years of dominating at the local and regional short-track level.
Allgaier was the benefactor of Gibbs’ last gasp at Martinsville, claiming the final Championship 4 spot that belonged to Jones until the final lap. Berry said he was more outspoken than usual about the late-race move last weekend, but that he has respect for Gibbs from having competed against him first on the Late Model level and now in Xfinity.
He also made a point to say that Gibbs was not solely to blame.
“If he could do everything over again last week, I’m sure that he would do things a little bit different,” Berry said. “I don’t completely put all the blame on him for what happened. I mean, there was people watching from afar that had radios that could have made decisions and helped push him and help him maybe make a better decision in that moment. So I don’t think it’s fair to completely put the fault on him in that moment. I know that they could have been more proactive during the race to say, ‘hey, this guy’s got a lot going on the line.’
“Yeah, he roughed you up. I mean, we’ve all seen it, right? I’ve raced short tracks my whole life. People run over each other for the win and the lead, but there’s just … the playoffs create a different dynamic there, that there was a lot going on amongst all that. And you know, somebody from afar could have stepped in and helped make his life a lot easier in that moment.”