Ty Gibbs: NASCAR’s newest villain?

Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch have multiple things in common. Each either was or is immensely talented behind the wheel of a race car. Each of these fierce competitors is ranked among the winningest drivers in NASCAR Cup Series history. Each of these drivers have won multiple championships. But also, each of these drivers, at least among certain portions of the NASCAR fanbase, was or has been regarded as a villain at one time or another.

Racing needs that character in the black hat whose actions not only deter or even intimidate competitors but also riles up the paying customers. While it’s not likely that anyone enjoys getting booed on a regular basis, some racers have learned to embrace the role of villain. Dale Earnhardt commonly said that he would rather have fans to boo him than to do sit quietly. Darrell Waltrip once challenged the boo birds to meet him in a K-Mart parking lot. Kyle Busch has made cry baby gestures toward jeering grandstands after his numerous victories.

Dirt Late Model legend Scott Bloomquist not only accepted that ‘bad guy’ image but has, throughout his career, leaned into it with the nickname ‘Black Sunshine’ and a myriad of T-shirts and other apparel that further help to portray the image.

Ty Gibbs(Photo: Getty Images)

And now, it looks as if NASCAR fans have found a new target upon which to aim their scorn.

Ty Gibbs certainly may not look the part with his small stature and baby faced appearance, but his accomplishments on the track have been so impressive that people are going to take notice of him whenever he sits in a race car. Typically, fans will take to younger drivers who are having early success in their careers. However, that has not necessarily been the case for this 19-year-old hot shoe.

From the beginning, Gibbs has been behind somewhat of a metaphorical 8-ball in terms of having fans to adopt him as a favorite because of the ‘silver spoon’ perception that he has been handed everything because his grandfather is legendary NFL coach and NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs.

I am 54 years old and have been watching racing for virtually my entire life. Make no mistake, this young driver has incredible talent no matter what his family circumstances might be. Anyone who objectively watches him compete in a race car will agree with that. But when it comes to determining who will find favor with the fans and who won’t, objectivity rarely plays a role. Emotion and perception kings in that process.

It isn’t just that he is related to Joe Gibbs and that he wins races that raises the ire of fans, however. As stated above, fans often do like winners … until they win too much. And more, those winners have to win in the ‘right way’.

Gibbs has shown during the early portion of his career that he is not averse to roughing someone up to get by. He and Corey Heim had their share of run-ins during their days on the ARCA Menards Series which caused some observers to criticize Gibbs for his aggressive driving style. But those criticisms have really ramped up over the past few weeks.

Many took exception to the way the No. 54 JGR Toyota bumped and then bullied teammate John Hunter Nemecheck out of the way on the last lap in the Toyota Care 250 Xfinity Series race at the Richmond Raceway two Saturdays ago to claim his third series win of the season. The driver himself even admitted in his post-race interview that he is probably owed payback for the move.

If that be the case, the offending driver can’t be upset when he becomes the offended. But that certainly appeared to be the case this most recent Friday night in the Call 811 Before You Dig 250 at the Martinsville Speedway.

JGR Toyota driver Brandon Jones got by Gibbs during a green/white/checkered finish to claim the win. However, it was the race for second that garnered the most attention. In a three-wide battle for the runner-up spot, Gibbs was on the receiving end of a bump from JR Motorsports driver Sam Mayer that eventually caused Gibbs to fall back to eighth in the final running order while Mayer claimed fifth.

On the cool down lap following the race Gibbs slammed into the Mayer car. Then on pit road as drivers were getting out of their machines, the still helmeted Gibbs approached un-helmeted Mayer and the two engaged in an argument that ultimately ended with Gibbs throwing punches. Fans who witnessed the incident later rained down a chorus of boos, presumably directed at the instigating Gibbs.

As a Psychology teacher, I discuss the differences between perception and reality. Often times, it doesn’t matter what the truth actually is, people are going to believe what they want to believe and the perception of Gibbs to many after the last two races is that he is fine with doling out the bump and run but he is not okay with receiving the bump and run.

Ty Gibbs in his No. 54 JGR Toyota

But as someone who writes articles about racing, I will say that having drivers who aren’t afraid to be emotional is a good thing. It makes for great stories and stirs up interest in the sport. Circus promoter P.T. Barnum supposedly once said that “There is no such thing as bad publicity” so from the perspective of the sport, having a villain who garners publicity for being such is a good thing.

Drivers such as those mentioned above learned to play into that role over time and even profited from it. At the same time, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Scott Bloomquist were not 19 years old nor was social media such a prolific thing when those reputations were being built during the early days of their careers.

This is not to say to say that Ty Gibbs has the same talent as those drivers because it takes years of consistently high levels of performance to reach that status. However, he is certainly on his way to reaching that level. But can he handle the role of the villain as those drivers did?

Not long ago this website published a piece titled “Don’t discount Ty Gibbs because of who he is related to“. There are fewer and fewer who are discounting his talent on a weekly basis, but at the same time, there seem to be more and more who are disliking his style and that may or may not have something to do with who he is related to.

Ultimately, Gibbs might as well embrace the black hat because whether he wants it to or not, it is probably going to be placed on his head.

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Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.

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