TALLADEGA, Ala. – First things first when it comes to Ty Gibbs and his latest controversy: Gibbs didn't want to waste any time removing his helmet as he and Sam Mayer argued at Martinsville Speedway.
What started as some jawing between Xfinity Series rivals on pit road escalated into a full-blown fight. Mayer repeatedly scolded Gibbs following the April 9 race and even poked his finger inside Gibbs' visor, but none of that is what led Gibbs to start throwing haymakers.
“I was mad and went up to him, and the helmet deal, I wasn't wasting any time to take my helmet off, I was just wanting to go talk to him right when I got out,” Gibbs told The Associated Press on Friday. "And then I walked away and I was trying to take my helmet off and he came back up and pushed me and shoved me.
“I tried to de-escalate the situation and leave and he came back up and fired it back up. That's where I snapped.”
Gibbs said it was too loud on pit road and he was still wearing his earbuds, so he has no idea what Mayer even said before Gibbs went into fight mode. But he's been heavily criticized for fighting with his helmet on — a decision he only partially regrets now.
“I didn't want to take my helmet off and get punched in the face while I was trying to take my helmet off at the same time,” Gibbs said. “There was a chance to take it off, but like I said, I wasn't wasting any time to take my helmet off.”
And so it goes for the budding young star, who goes to Talladega Superspeedway for the Xfinity Series race on Saturday coming off back-to-back incidents that are turning Joe Gibbs' grandson into NASCAR's newest villain. At Richmond the week before his fight with Mayer, Gibbs moved teammate John Hunter Nemecheck in the final turn to win for the third time in eight starts this season.
It's important to note that Gibbs, who qualified third for Saturday's race in Alabama, delivers on the track.
He won in his Xfinity debut last year on the road course at Daytona and racked up four victories in 18 starts. All told, he has won seven of 26 Xfinity Series races dating to last season. Last year's ARCA champion has won at every level to earn his spot in the Joe Gibbs Racing lineup.
But he can't shake the perception that he's a lucky 19-year-old driving his grandpa's car, the No. 54 Toyota that just happens to be the best car in the series. Gibbs has also been criticized for his aggression on the track — but that's what wins races, crew chief Chris Gayle said.
“I have had conversations with him, as others have, and said, ‘Listen, this just is what it is. You’re probably not going to get the benefit of the doubt,'" Gayle told AP. "'There's going to be 50% of the people who don't like you just because you are a silver-spoon kid with the last name of Gibbs and you've had every advantage.'
“He chose this path of wanting to do this and enjoying it enough, and knew all this criticism was going to come his way and he still wanted to do it anyway. I don't know that anyone wants to be tagged as the villain and its getting tagged on him for a lot of different reasons that maybe wouldn't happen to someone else — like what if this was Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s kid and was aggressive the same way? Would the same thing apply?"
The series was off last weekend and the Gibbs clan took their annual vacation to Kiawah Island in South Carolina. The teen made a conscious effort to spend his time with his family.
“It's been the best two weeks of my life without social media,” Gibbs told AP. “I've been taking steps away from it as I've gotten older because it's distracting me. I just want to be a 19-year-old and be with my dog and my friends and I don't think social media is the right way to do that, and I don't want to chase likes or follows. It's been a nice break.”
The fight with Mayer will undoubtedly follow Gibbs for some time.
Gayle said he and the No. 54 crew were shocked when Gibbs started throwing punches. But then the crew chief remembered days when Joe Gibbs' two sons would wrestle each other on the shop floor, the competitive fire that burns through the family on full display.
Joe Gibbs won three Super Bowls coaching Washington and is a member of both the NASCAR and National Football League halls of fame. His first son, the late J.D. Gibbs, was a defensive back and quarterback at William & Mary, while youngest son Coy was a linebacker at Stanford. Both dabbled in racing before moving into JGR team management.
Coy Gibbs staunchly defended his son when asked about Richmond and Martinsville.
“I mean, look, that’s my son, so I have his back, 24-7, 365 days a year,” Coy Gibbs told AP. "We’re a pretty tough family, raise our children tough. And I’m proud of him as a human and I think he’s talented driving a car, so that’s what we’ve got.”
The tightknit family includes seven Gibbs grandsons, one of whom plays football at Appalachian State and another who works on a JGR pit crew. Ty Gibbs, listed at a generous 5-foot-7, has been scrapping with his cousins and brothers his entire life.
“Playing football, tackle football, just running around outside, it's always been like that,” said Ty Gibbs, who acknowledged he's been in fights before. “I have, with them, and just kind of growing up and being boys, getting in school fights. We've just always been raised to be tough.”
How tough? Ty Gibbs has squared off before against his father, the former linebacker at least twice his size.
"I've wrestled a little, just messing around, but he is pretty big,” said Gibbs, who has boxed against his father and learned a step-back technique that makes it competitive. “(I)f we get in close range, I'm throwing the towel in.”
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports