Across much of last year’s Xfinity Series season, they wrestled and wrecked in search of the championship, and all of the issues bubbled over in the final weekend as they approached the title race at Phoenix Raceway. It was almost as close as two combatants could make it — Gibbs won the race (and the title) by .397 of a second over second-place Gragson, who was charging for the front but ran out of laps.
Their rivalry took a rest for the offseason, but soon they’ll be on the same playing field — although a larger, more important one — again, seeking wins and the Rookie of the Year title in the Cup Series. Gibbs will be driving for his family-owned team, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Gragson moves to Cup with Legacy Motor Club, formerly Petty GMS.
Both drivers were aggressive — sometimes overly so, said some of their competitors — last season, and there is little reason to think their methods of operation will change at the next level. Lack of experience might be their speed limit, but expect them to poke their noses in tight spaces and, perhaps, into each other.
“I don’t like him,” Gragson said of Gibbs approaching last year’s final Xfinity race. “I want to beat him straight up. It pisses him off a lot more.”
In addition to racing at the top level of the Xfinity Series last year, Gragson and Gibbs got some unexpected Cup experience in similar circumstances. Gibbs filled in for Kurt Busch at 23XI Racing after Busch was injured at Pocono Raceway, and Gragson substituted for the injured Alex Bowman at Hendrick Motorsports late in the year. Gragson also drove some Cup races for Kaulig Racing and Beard Motorsports.
Illustrating how tight their competition could be in their first full season in Cup, Gragson and Gibbs recorded very similar statistics in both Cup and Xfinity last year. Gibbs won seven Xfinity races, Gragson eight. Gragson had 26 top 10s, Gibbs 23. In Cup, Gragson had one top five and one top 10, with an average finish of 23.1. Gibbs had one top 10 and an average finish of 22.9.
Although neither pushed their top-flight cars to wins in Cup, that experience is likely to pay big dividends as the 2023 season starts.
“Getting that extra experience, kind of having a preconceived thought of what I should expect for this year — it’s nice having that experience going into this year, not just getting thrown in cold turkey and saying, ‘Go race.’ ” Gragson told NBC Sports.
“The shifting is a lot different now. We have five-speed sequential. At Atlanta, I ran around there for four laps and the whole dash was lit up red. I couldn’t figure out why. I’m like, ‘Oh, shoot, there’s five gears in this thing.’ I’d run around there in fourth gear the whole time and shifted to fifth. So, little things like that that you start to learn about the car and the differences of being so familiar with the Xfinity car and now getting thrown into a different situation — it’s nice to have a little bit of experience.”
Gibbs had a top finish of 10th (at Michigan Speedway) in the 23XI Racing Toyotas.
“I think it was very beneficial to have those Cup races,” he told NBC Sports. “A lot of work, but I learned a lot during those times.”