Ty Gibbs realized a dream 16 years in the making.
On Saturday, Gibbs won the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway. The second-generation racer and grandson of Joe Gibbs became the youngest driver to win on a road course and the second youngest competitor to win an NXS race.
And he’s only 18.
Sure, it may be premature to ask what’s next for the talented teenager. But with full Cup and Xfinity stables at Joe Gibbs Racing, it’s only a matter of time before musical chairs begin to shift again at Toyota’s flagship organization. On Tuesday, JGR announced 14 additional Xfinity races for the teen sensation. His next NXS start is scheduled for March 13 at Phoenix Raceway.
Toyota Racing president David Wilson’s stock answer to the dilemma of too many candidates in the driver pipeline is always the same, “It’s a good problem to have.”
He’s right. Since 2013, when Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones entered the Toyota camp in the Camping World Truck Series, the manufacturer has never lacked a reservoir of talent.
For aspiring young drivers, the Toyota development model offers a great opportunity to hone their skills. From the dirt and pavement ranks to the resources at TRD’s R&D Center in Salisbury, N.C., these young competitors want for nothing—except maybe a long-term ride.
Christopher Bell’s breakthrough Cup victory on Sunday was seven years in the making—from midgets to NASCAR’s top tour. Bell, who returned to Joe Gibbs Racing this season after spending a gap year in the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota in 2020, was quick to recognize his benefactors during post-race.
“Thank you to Jack Irving (Toyota senior commercial manager) and Tyler Gibbs (TRD GM),” Bell said. “You guys believed in me since day one. It feels like I’ve prepared my whole life for this moment to race in the Cup Series.
“Last year was a huge learning curve for me, and I’m very grateful that I got the opportunity to run in Cup. It definitely prepared me to move for Joe Gibbs Racing.”
The 26-year-old racer is well aware the performance bar is set high. He has seen peers such as Wallace, Daniel Suarez and Jones ejected from the Toyota camp for not posting numbers that were respectable enough.
“Obviously Joe Gibbs Racing does a great job giving everybody great equipment,” said Bell, who won in his second Cup start with JGR—topping Matt Kenseth, who won in his third start after joining the organization in 2013. “I knew going into this year that I was going to have to perform.”
Harrison Burton is one of the hot prospects in the Toyota camp. The 20-year-old second-generation racer graduated to JGR’s Xfinity Series program last year. Burton led the Gibbs’ NXS stable with four wins and finished eighth in the standings.
But with JGR recently re-signing Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr., and then adding Bell to the fold this season, it’s going to be a while before a Cup seat opens up at the Huntersville, N.C.-shop.
“Obviously, you think about things like that because your dream is to be in the Cup Series, but if I’m ever going to be there – I’ve got to focus on where I’m at now,” Burton said. “Last year, I had a good year, won races, got my name into those conversations somewhat, but didn’t do anything to make it an undeniable thing. That’s what you have to do nowadays to get a Cup ride. You have to be amazing in the Xfinity Series.
“You see Chase Briscoe, Christopher Bell, Austin Cindric, guys that win a ton of races, and they find a way to make themselves undeniable for the Cup Series, so that’s the next step for me, plus I love the Xfinity Series. It’s so much fun. Winning races there is an amazing feeling, and I hope to be doing more of that—but that’s the next deal for me, is trying to be at that level and have a season like that.”
So how does a young gun distinguish himself or herself among the pool of prospects?
“I think show that you are ready to put in the work,” Burton said. “When you get to the Cup Series, no matter how good you are in the Xfinity or Trucks or wherever you come from, it’s a big step. Those guys are all amazing. They are all guys that are there for a reason. They are the best of the best. To go there and contend for wins, and win races is one of the hardest things on this planet to do. To show that you are willing to work, to show that you are willing to take criticism and try to get better from it, that’s my biggest thing.
“There’s also the side effect of work is getting better, so you want to show that you are working and getting better to try to impress people, but you are also doing it because you need to, to win races. You want to win races. I think if I just focus on where I’m at now. I know it’s a cliché answer, but if I focus on where I’m at now and try to be the best that I can be here and try to enjoy where I’m at, I think that maybe puts me in a better spot to be able to make that jump one day.”
Burton is on the right path. The number one goal he set with his new crew chief Jason Ratcliff is winning the Xfinity title. If a driver isn't progressing, his potential for a good Cup ride is short-lived. He can also rely on his father Jeff to avoid the pitfalls that derail some young drivers. But there’s no textbook to prepare a driver for competing against the owner’s grandson—particularly when he’s as talented as Ty Gibbs.
So how does team owner Coach Gibbs balance his driver roster? Clearly, it’s just a matter of time before Ty takes that next step.
“I appreciate Toyota, everyone back at the race shop, all of our team there, because this is all we do,” Joe Gibbs said. “Everyone at JGR is focused on, we know you have to have a great driver, you have to have great crew chiefs, you have to have great pit crews. It’s a total team effort. We’re a long way off from thinking about Ty in Cup. That’s a long ways off. But I am thrilled right now with our current lineup.”
In addition to Burton, Brandon Jones is starting his fourth year at JGR. Jones' three wins last season constituted a career-best total for the 24-year-old Atlantan. Daniel Hemric bet the farm for an opportunity with JGR. And Ty Dillon is attempting to resurrect his career in the Toyota camp.
“Our Xfinity program, we put a lot into that,” Gibbs added. “This is one of the strongest groups we’ve had and that’s been a huge part of our success at our race teams—with the crew chiefs that have come up, the drivers that have come up. What we’re trying to do is just prepare ourselves for the future. You’ve got to have drivers. You got to have crew chiefs. And you’ve got to make good decisions.
“We’re thankful for the people that we do and the leadership that we have there at JGR. Every day we go to work and all we work on is racing and NASCAR. We love it. We’re actually racing nine cars in three divisions. We love every single aspect of it, and we really think it helps our Cup program—the Xfinity and ARCA programs—preparing people to step up to Cup.”
Busch hasn’t fielded Xfinity Series cars since 2013, but there’s always that possibility. And given JGR’s new alliance with Hamlin’s 23XI Racing, Gibbs believes there’s potential to expand that program down the road as well.
“Well, I think Toyota will have a lot to say about that,” Gibbs said. “I know that Denny has talked about with their team—Michael (Jordan) and Denny have talked about adding a car, there. I think Kyle—with the truck program—he kind of has a full plate over there. That helps, too, in that you have Kyle’s truck program and Denny now with an alliance with us—which is really good.
“But you’ve got to really be after it. It’s so competitive. You have such great teams out there—and the owners—I guess that’s why we love it so much is because it’s hard. You get to come to the race track and race against Penske and Hendrick and Roush and Haas. It’s a thrill to be able to do that.”