By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer
The Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marked the unofficial start to the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season, which also meant a new beginning for some of the world’s best stock car racers. For Ty Gibbs, it was an opportunity to peel off his rookie stripes and show the competition he has no intentions of succumbing to a sophomore slump.
Coming off an uncontested Sunoco Rookie of the Year campaign, backed by 10 top-10 finishes and a near-playoff appearance, Gibbs and his No. 54 team led by Chris Gayle picked up right where they left off.
Although unable to find victory lane – as he did seven times the year prior during his NASCAR Xfinity Series championship run – Gibbs came within striking distance on numerous occasions to close out his first full-time season in Cup and was able to do the same in the third-running of the exhibition race at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Gibbs started the main event from third in what wound up being an incredibly successful debut for the new Toyota Camry XSE and Joe Gibbs Racing in 2024.
It was Denny Hamlin who walked away from the Clash with bragging rights after starting from the pole and securing the win, but Gibbs asserted himself as the man to beat by leading a race-high 84 laps, while Toyota accounted for 94% of the laps led.
The 21-year-old appeared to be well on his way to his first Cup victory after amassing a 2.6-second lead over two-time champ Joey Logano with just over 10 laps remaining – the largest lead of the day for any driver.
Then, as was the case in 2023, inexperience took over.
Following a caution with 10 to go, Gibbs restarted on the inside of Logano from the first row. Caught in the middle of a three-wide battle with Hamlin charging on the bottom exiting Turn 2, he squeezed the No. 22 into the wall and was unable to prevent his teammate from grabbing the lead and eventual win.
From there, Gibbs dropped to fifth and was ultimately relegated to an 18th-place outing after getting turned by Kyle Larson on Lap 150.
“I think it comes down to capitalizing,” Gibbs said of falling short in winning. “Doing my job, my team doing their job and my pit crew doing their job. We all have to execute at the same time to be able to produce a win. We were really close on multiple occasions last year.”
At the end of the race, there was hardly any mention of Gibbs’ dominant showing. Instead, Hamlin and his No. 11 team understandably stole the glory and the reigning Rookie of the Year made headlines for a different reason.
Logano, having to settle for fourth, tracked down Gibbs and confronted him about the contact on the restart with 10 to go. Following a heated exchange, the Team Penske driver ended the conversation ambiguously by telling Gibbs, “Just like all the other times, I’ll remember.”
After the drivers’ discussion, Gibbs pleaded his case to the media members in attendance.
“I ran him up (the track), but if you go back and look at the replay, the 12 (Ryan Blaney) kind of chucks him out of the way too,” Gibbs said. “It’s just hard racing there at the end. This place is really hard to get your tires warm once the caution comes out. As you could see, everyone was sliding around, so I just got in there deep and washed up into him.
“I just have to get better at restarts.”
Moving forward, Gibbs may have made an enemy in Logano, but it’s nothing he isn’t familiar with.
The 2022 Xfinity champ has made his name to this point by winning races and flaring tempers amongst his competitors. While he displayed an uncharacteristically reserved demeanor in his first full-time Cup season, he knows he’ll have to prove his worth to the sport’s top drivers going forward.
Of course, there’s a fine line to balance between respect and competitiveness at NASCAR’s top level, but success isn’t going to be handed to Gibbs. If he wants to last in the Cup Series and avoid blending into the list of hot-shot newcomers to fizzle out at the top ranks, he’ll have to be aggressive and start winning.
“The way I was raised is just to go and compete for a win every single weekend,” Gibbs said. “That’s the way I was raised. Everything I do, racing wise, I’m going to win. If I can’t do that, then I’m going to finish the best I can with what I have.
“That’s never going to change … and it’s worked out for me a good bit. I think that’s the only way to do it.”