NASCAR: The irony of Pocono’s late driver change

Kyle Busch, Ty Gibbs, Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, Ty Gibbs, Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images) /

Ty Gibbs made his unexpected NASCAR Cup Series debut at Pocono Raceway, subbing for Kurt Busch, with some irony relating to his potential 2023 plans.

Ty Gibbs made his NASCAR Cup Series debut this past Sunday at Pocono Raceway, which was an unexpected milestone as a late substitute for 23XI Racing’s Kurt Busch.

Busch was not medically cleared to compete in the race due to his concussion-like symptoms, following a crash in Saturday’s qualifying session.

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The Xfinity Series was at Pocono Raceway as well over the weekend, and Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) is aligned with 23XI Racing, making Gibbs an obvious replacement choice.

Gibbs turned heads last year when he took the victory in his first career Xfinity Series start, and he now has eight wins and 21 top 10 finishes in 37 races.

He is one of the hottest young drivers not yet in the Cup Series, and the questions surrounding his and JGR’s 2023 plans only added to the irony of his surprise Cup Series debut.

Gibbs was filling in for Kurt Busch, whose younger brother Kyle is a pending free agent after this season. Gibbs has been linked to his seat at Joe Gibbs Racing for 2023.

Kyle’s sponsor, Mars Wrigley, previously announced that they will not return next year, and they were the title sponsor of Sunday’s race, the M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400.

Kyle was disqualified after failing post-race inspection; he initially finished in second place. Also disqualified was teammate and initial race winner Denny Hamlin, who co-owns the team with which Gibbs made his debut.

Hamlin was the most recent driver on JGR, or one of its affiliates, to need a last-minute injury replacement, when Erik Jones took over following a rain delay at Bristol Motor Speedway in April 2015. That marked Jones’s unofficial Cup Series debut, as Hamlin started the race and was credited with the finish.

And the last bit of irony, Gibbs drove the #45 Toyota, a number reverse of the #54 Toyota he drives in the Xfinity Series.

With all of the irony surrounding Ty Gibbs’ Cup Series debut, the most interesting point is that it may have served as an audition for him to be promoted in 2023.

Gibbs had to start at the back on Sunday because of the driver change, plus the fact that he was in a backup car. He rolled off in a car that he had yet to race, and with no prior seat time.

Despite that adversity, Gibbs ran a quiet race, running consistently around 25th to 30th place and having no issues with his first Cup Series green flag pit stop.

He was able to start gaining positions late in the race, specifically on a pair of restarts in the final 18 laps. He finished in 18th place, and the disqualifications of his factory teammates bumped him up to 16th.

There were 27 drivers who finished on the lead lap and kept their results, so his ability to finish in 16th place in his first Cup Series start, with no previous seat time, was really impressive.

“I’ll take that,” Gibbs told reporters, including’s Zach Sturniolo, after the race. “I still wish I could have put it together a little bit quicker, but these are experiences for me in my life that I’ll just take hold of and always remember how it felt.”

Crew chief Billy Scott told reporters that it was fun to watch Gibbs make improvements, despite having a car that was too tight at the end.

“He actually raced the hell out of it there at the end on those last few restarts,” said Scott. “It was fun to see him get up there and challenge some of the veterans in the sport…to do it in his first attempt ever, at a track like this with so many of them pushing the edge there, it was fun to watch.”

If Gibbs does move to full-time Cup Series competition next season, replacing Kyle Busch at JGR would seem like the top option.

While Gibbs could return to a full-time Xfinity Series ride next season, his strong Cup Series debut is a big step in the direction of proving that he’d be ready to make the jump.

One factor that would make that move difficult is the lack of available options in the JGR/Toyota stable.

Hamlin, Kurt Busch, and Bubba Wallace are under contract for next year, and Bell is expected to return to his current ride. That leaves Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch.

Truex confirmed in June that he is coming back, despite uncertainty earlier in the season. But for Kyle Busch, there is still no sign of a deal.

While there is no denying his talent, there are several factors which make him the odd driver out. His primary sponsor is not returning, his career did not start at JGR, and he has been in the series for nearly two decades.

Wallace is a relative youngster compared to the veterans on the team, Hamlin and Bell are homegrown talents at JGR, with Bell also being a youngster, and Truex’s sponsors have not announced an exit.

Yes, Busch is a 60-time race winner and two-time champion in the Cup Series, with 102 Xfinity Series wins and 62 Truck Series wins under his belt as well, but there is more than just proven talent to consider.

JGR have not gone more than two seasons without changing their driver lineup since 2012, and the sport’s youth movement could be an extra incentive to move in a different direction.

Gibbs is also the grandson of team owner Joe Gibbs, which could provide some sentimental value to having him run the #18 car. The number 18 was the team’s first car number when it debuted with Dale Jarrett in 1992.

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There will be many factors to consider before JGR’s 2023 plans are confirmed, and one race is a small sample size. But it was still a great opportunity for Ty Gibbs to show what he can do in a Cup car. If he does replace Kyle Busch next season, the irony of his debut will be something to look back on for years to come.