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Friday 5: Cup rookie Ty Gibbs turning things around after slow start

Special guest Chase Elliott tells Dustin Long that he and fans of the No. 9 are "all in it together," and that the response after the announcement that he will climb back in the race car at Martinsville "means a lot."

Ty Gibbs smiles and laughs. His brother Case recently pitched a shutout in a high school baseball game. His sister Elle was recently accepted by Cornell University.

“I’ve got to step my game up,” Ty Gibbs said with a grin.

He has. The rookie heads into Sunday’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway with four consecutive top-10 finishes. It marks only the second time since 2018 that a Cup rookie has had four top 10s in a row. Austin Cindric did it last year.

No other Cup driver has more than two top 10s in a row entering Martinsville. Only Tyler Reddick has a better average finish (6.0) than Gibbs (9.3) over the last four races. Gibbs is the first driver since Chase Elliott in 2016 to have four top 10s in the first eight races of their rookie season.

Gibbs’ run is quite a change from how the season started for the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing team. He finished no better than 16th in the opening four races of the season.

“It’s just me minimizing mistakes,” Gibbs told NBC Sports of the turnaround that has seen him place ninth three weeks in a row before his 10th-place result last weekend at Bristol.

“When I execute, when the team does, we have great finishes and for sure can finish way better.”

Gibbs’ top-10 streak has him up five spots to 18th in the standings.

A year ago, Gibbs admits he would have been “disappointed” with finishing ninth or 10th in four straight races in the Xfinity Series, but his move to a full-time Cup ride this year has him looking at results differently. He’s pleased but not satisfied.

“There’s times where I’m very frustrated, and I’m trying to make myself feel better and look at the positives,” Gibbs said. “‘OK, I finished ninth in the Cup Series today. I’m 20. That’s pretty good.’ But then … 20% of that feeling still may be angry because I don’t want to be finishing where that is. I want to get better every time.”

Helping him do so is crew chief Chris Gayle, who guided Gibbs to the Xfinity Series title last year. This is Gayle’s second time in Cup with a young driver. He was Erik Jones’ crew chief from 2017-20 and has taken that experience to help him with Gibbs.

“I would tell you the first time (as a Cup crew chief), I was a rookie, Erik was a rookie,” Gayle told NBC Sports. “There was lots of pressure from both sides to try to always get the last 1% of everything. I think sometimes I would make mistakes personally because I’m trying just as hard as him.

“So I think in this case (with Gibbs), I’m able to back away. I’ve been there before and say, ‘OK, both of us can’t be pushing 110% because we get ourselves in trouble. I’ve got to be more of the voice of reason and back off a little bit of that and try to let him be the guy who is young and aggressive.”

Gayle notes an example is not trying a setup that is so different from the other JGR teams, saying that “maybe it makes a little more sense to be a little closer to the teammates and learn things and just get good, solid base hits before we worry about that home run.”

Another adjustment for both Gibbs and Gayle is going from the Xfinity car to the Next Gen car. Gibbs got a head start last year, driving 15 Cup races in place of an injured Kurt Busch at 23XI Racing.

Gibbs calls it “a very big (learning) curve” to go from the Xfinity car to the Cup car.

In a way, that helps Gibbs adjust going from a season where he was often winning in Xfinity to a series where top 10s are quite an accomplishment.

“When you realize (the big jump in cars between series) and put it in the big picture, then you’re like, ‘I just have to get over this little speed bump and if I do everything and execute the same way, then eventually I’ll become a winner,” Gibbs said.

2. Livestream appeal cases?

After a confusing set of decisions by the National Motorsports Appeals Panel, NASCAR changed its rule April 6 to require the panel to state a reason for its decision to modify, rescind or keep penalties as is, but some say NASCAR should go further.

“I think we should do them publicly,” Kevin Harvick said of the appeal hearings. “Why not? Right? If it’s truly fair, let’s just do it publicly and just livestream them on Let’s go for it.”

He’s not alone.

NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton also likes the idea, saying on the NASCAR on NBC podcast this week: “I think everything should be transparent. The appeals process, I think they should turn the camera on and let us all watch it. I think we should all be privy to all the information. If not, you don’t understand it. It feels inconsistent.”

The appeals panel confirmed March 29 that Hendrick Motorsports violated the rule by modifying hood louvers on each of its cars before last month’s event at Phoenix, but rescinded the penalties of 100 points and 10 playoff points to each of the Hendrick drivers and teams. No explanation was given for the change.

A different group of panelists ruled April 5 that Kaulig Racing, penalized for modifying a hood louver on Justin Haley’s car, violated the rule but kept the penalties in place except reducing the 100-point penalty to Haley and the team by 25 points. Again, no explanation was given by the panel for its decision.

“As a hardcore fan, I need to know what in the hell just happened,” Burton said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast of the differing appeal results. “If I’m running a race team, I need to know what happened. If I’m driving a race car, I need to know what happened.”

Those decisions led to NASCAR making changes to its rule book in regards to what the appeals panel can do.

Car owner Richard Childress, who has appeared before the panel in the past, said he would be fine with cameras broadcasting the hearing.

“Make it transparent,” Childress said. “If I’ve got an appeal and they want to have a camera, let me tell my story and let them tell me why they don’t believe in my story.”

3. Better execution

One the goals for Martin Truex Jr. and his No. 19 team was to do a better job of execution in races after a season that saw the group fail to win a race and Truex miss the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

Since a victory in the Clash at the Coliseum exhibition race in early February, things have not gone as smoothly for the team.

“Bristol’s the first clean race we’ve had all year almost,” Truex told NBC Sports of last weekend’s seventh-place result. “We’ve just had issue after issue after issue, but I feel like we’re better than we were last year. Like if we just do everything right, we’re going to be better.

“I’m looking forward to Martinsville because of how good we ran at Richmond and the Clash (win). Last year, we struggled so bad on short tracks, so I feel like we’re better. This weekend will be a good test.”

Truex has won three of the last seven Martinsville races. His most recent victory there came in April 2021.

The Richmond race was an example of the execution issues. Truex’s car did not handle well, forcing the team to pit during a caution in the first stage when much of the field did not. That meant that Truex had one less set of tires than the field.

When the field pitted on Lap 375 of the 400-lap race, Truex’s team did not have any new tires left, while most of the field had one set remaining. Truex’s team had to put on a set of scuffed tires. He restarted third but was quickly overtaken by cars with fresher tires before finishing 11th.

“I feel like we’ve got all the pieces, we’ve got all the people and now we’ve just got to do it and get in that comfort zone where things just click and you don’t feel like you’re having to try too hard,” said Truex, who is winless in his last 52 Cup points races.

4. Pushing the limits

Alex Bowman, who is tied with Christopher Bell for the most top 10s this season with six, spent Tuesday competing in the High Limit Sprint Car Series event at Lakeside Speedway, a 4/10-mile dirt track in Kansas City, Kansas.

The series was launched by Kyle Larson and Brad Sweet, the four-time defending World of Outlaws champion. Larson also competed in that event, finishing fifth.

The series features significant purses for sprint car races — Tuesday’s winner Giovanni Scelzi won $50,000 for his victory — and brings together top drivers from various series.

Bowman has a dirt background but he admits this is a challenge to compete against these drivers. That’s why he does it.

“It’s like a way to train outside my comfort zone because a big track and a sprint car I’m super uncomfortable,” he told NBC Sports. “I’m trying to figure it out against the Outlaws and all the best guys and it’s hard.”

Bowman needed a provisional to make the feature and finished 16th in the 27-car field.
“We don’t go to easy races,” Bowman said. “I didn’t make it easy on myself. I’m the guy that made the schedule and I made it as hard as possible. … I think I underestimated how hard it would be, but I think that continues to fuel me. I want to get better at it.

“I want to just be able to go places and be competitive. Like we’re decent here and there. I feel like we can be competitive at short tracks right now. … The big places I’d like to figure out and get better at. I just want to go to any sprint car race and be competitive.”

5. Odds and ends

Todd Gilliland has finished between eighth and 15th in the last four races. It marks the first time the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports has had four consecutive top-15 finishes. Gilliland has done that despite hitting the wall at Atlanta (finished 15th), twice getting his lap back at Richmond (15th) and recovering from an early accident at Bristol to finish eighth. He placed 10th at Circuit of the Americas during that streak.

Hendrick Motorsports Vice Chairman Jeff Gordon had an interesting comment this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio about Indianapolis Motor Speedway: “I wish Indianapolis would have been once every four years. To me that would have continued to make it special, unique and I think people would have wanted to come and see stock cars be there and it’s not an every year thing. … I’m all about less is more. You give people just enough to come back and then you’ve got give them something a little bit more, something a little bit more unique and different the next time they come back or eventually it is going to kind of wear.”

Life has returned to normal for Xfinity driver Josh Williams after becoming a social media star when he parked his car at the start/finish line at Atlanta and walked away from his car after NASCAR had ordered him to go to the garage. He was suspended one race. Saturday’s race at Martinsville is his second race back since the suspension. As to what it was like to be a viral sensation, he told NBC Sports: “It was fun because I kind of got to tell people on multiple different platforms who I am and then gain more fans. A lot of fans came on board because of what I did. And then some fans came on board because they learned who I was as a person.”