NASCAR: The overhyped battle that never happened

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

Ty Gibbs vs. Noah Gragson for NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year was supposed to be a great battle. It never got off the ground.

The top two drivers in the 2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series season, both in terms of the championship standings and the wins category, were promoted to full-time Cup Series rides for 2023.

Ty Gibbs moved from his grandfather’s Xfinity Series team to the Joe Gibbs Racing Cup Series team, replacing the Richard Childress Racing-bound Kyle Busch behind the wheel of the No. 18-turned-No. 54 Toyota, and Noah Gragson replaced the Spire Motorsports-bound Ty Dillon at the rebranded Legacy Motor Club behind the wheel of the No. 42 Chevrolet.

With the 20-year-old Charlotte, North Carolina native and the 25-year-old Las Vegas, Nevada native, who clashed on a number of occasions at the sport’s second highest level, being the only two rookies in the Cup Series this year, the battle was billed as a can’t-miss.

Joe Gibbs Racing are obviously a top-tier team in the Cup Series, and Legacy Motor Club made significant progress as Petty GMS Motorsports late in the 2023 season, highlighted by Erik Jones’ sensational Southern 500 victory at Darlington Raceway.

But unfortunately, the battle itself has missed throughout the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season — and in a big way.

With three races remaining on the 26-race regular season schedule, one driver sits in the provisional playoff picture as one of four drivers above the cut line on points. The other has no idea if he will ever drive a Cup car again.

Even before Gragson, who already missed a race earlier this season with a head injury he suffered in a crash, was suspended indefinitely and ultimately released for liking a The Little Mermaid-themed meme mocking the death of George Floyd, he found himself in 33rd (last) place in the point standings among full-time drivers.

Gragson only finished higher than 20th place once this season, and he only finished higher than 25th once from the end of March until his release.

Gibbs has bettered Gragson’s best finish (12th place) on seven occasions, and his average finish in the last three events is 10.3, with no results outside of the top 15. He has spent much of the season hovering around 18th or 19th in the point standings, and his recent improvement in execution and consistency has resulted in him moving three points above the playoff cut line heading into this Sunday afternoon’s race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

Gibbs has averaged 21.13 points per race this season, and DraftKings Sportsbook, which is now offering fans an instant $150 just for betting $5, lists the 2022 Xfinity Series champion at +4000 to win this year’s Cup Series championship.

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Gragson averaged an abysmal 9.48 points per race and was removed from the championship odds even before his release. He is the only full-time driver not to eclipse 200-point mark, placing him lower than the driver he replaced.

It goes without saying that he wasn’t granted a playoff waiver following his suspension and subsequent release, but for the sake of a comparison, he sits 287 points behind Gibbs for the final playoff spot.

Even a driver with 287 total points at this point in the year would have averaged 12.48 points per race, which is significantly more than Gragson averaged.

All in all, it was never much of a battle. While part of Gragson’s struggles stemmed from Legacy Motor Club as a whole taking a step back this year, even teammate Jones has recorded five top 10 finishes, one shy of Gibbs’ mark. Without a recent 60-point penalty, he would be sitting at 425 points, good for an average of 18.48 per race.

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Not only has the “battle” not really been much of a battle, but this “battle” will not even get a chance to resume following Gragson’s release. Mike Rockenfeller has been confirmed as the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet for the next two races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Watkins Glen International, and further announcements regarding Legacy Motor Club’s plans beyond those races are forthcoming.