Ty Gibbs was thrown into the fire and came out shining.
The NASCAR Xfinity Series regular who has stirred up controversy on the way to repeated wins on that circuit was picked to replace Kurt Busch in Sunday’s Cup race at Pocono Raceway after Busch crashed hard in Saturday practice.
NASCAR medical protocol parked Busch for the day, and Gibbs, who is expected to be a full-time driver in Cup in the next season or two, was called on to drive for Busch with little notice.
Gibbs ran mid-pack much of the day, stayed out of trouble and came home 16th, a very representative finish in his first Cup race.
Afterward, Gibbs thanked God, 23XI Racing team owners Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan and “everybody at 23XI.”
“The most important thing right now is about Kurt’s health, and hopefully he can get back in this seat,” Gibbs said. “He drives way better than me, so he deserves this. He’s been awesome. He’s helped me out so much. I want to say thank you to him.
“We had a fast McDonald’s Camry TRD. I had a great time, so Michael, if you’re watching I want to say thank you. It’s a big pleasure to wear this (Jordan emblem) on my shoulder and on my shoes. I had a great time and I learned a lot, so it was awesome.”
Busch hopes to return to the No. 45 Toyota this week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A decision on his eligibility will be made this week.
Gibbs said the biggest change from Xfinity to Cup was “just the dirty air and how bad that affects you. Just being able to make sure I was getting out far enough. I was a little bit tight all day, so just trying to get front turn and trying to get more center turn which would help me. It was a learning day. I felt like I learned a lot.
“I’m very thankful. It was close to almost a top 15. It was fun racing with Brad (Keselowski). Never thought I’d race with these guys. It was just cool being next to them on the track. So, to 10-year-old Ty that means a lot. I don’t think I would ever expect that.”
Three drivers in the hunt for playoff positions had a mixed day Sunday at Pocono.
A late-race crash led to a 33rd-place finish for Ryan Blaney, who remained in 15th (of 16) positions in the playoff standings. Blaney is the first non-winner in the standings.
Blaney led seven laps and seemed on the way to a top-10 finish before he lost control of his Ford and hit the outside pit wall late in the race.
“I just got loose,” Blaney said. “It was one of those things. You get loose off three and think you can save it, but you can’t. I just couldn’t save it.
“We finally got the car decent, and we were running top five there and had a flat tire and had to come in and then I just tried too hard and it stepped away from me. I hate it for Menards and Ford and everybody. That was my mistake. We will go at it again next week.”
Kevin Harvick, mired in a winless streak that has reached 64 races, saw his struggles continue.
He was a victim of a late-race confrontation between Denny Hamlin and Ross Chastain. He hit Chastain as Chastain’s car bounced off the wall, and the incident dropped Harvick from an expected solid finish to 27th.
Harvick remains in the first spot below the playoff cutoff, trailing Martin Truex Jr.
Truex led two laps Sunday but couldn’t stay in the top five. He finished seventh after the reshuffling of the results.
Team owner Denny Hamlin is aggressively addressing 23XI Racing’s pit-road issues.
On Saturday at Pocono, Hamlin said 23XI plans to have its own pit crews next season instead of relying on Joe Gibbs Racing to provide them as that team has this year.
23XI has had various issues with the No. 23 and No. 45 pit crews this season, leading to changes in-season. Two penalties during the Kansas race cost driver Bubba Wallace a shot at the win, leading Wallace to voice concern that his “pit crew sucks.”
“We’re on our path to get our own pit crews,” said Hamlin, one of Joe Gibbs Racing’s drivers. “I think we’re on a good path to start that next year. We’re in the recruiting process, so anybody wants to come on over just give me a call.
“This should help everyone’s program, especially Joe Gibbs Racing. For them to try to have to field six really good pit crews — it’s tough for them. Can they do four? Yes, but then where does that leave our team? That means we’re always going to be fifth or sixth best. It’s hard for us to win races that way, especially in track-position type racing like we have today.
“So I think that we just felt that it’d be better if we had control over personnel and training and all those things, and it certainly is part of the future for us. I think that our relationship will always stay strong with Joe Gibbs Racing, but some things we just feel like we would be better off if we just did it ourselves. That way Joe doesn’t have to listen to me coming in his office each and every week saying how can we fix this or at that. If we stink, it’s on us.”