AVONDALE, Ariz. – Like a prized championship boxer, Noah Gragson gave it everything he had to win this year’s NASCAR Xfinity Series championship.
By all means, the 24-year-old Las Vegas native did his part by qualifying fourth for Saturday evening’s NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship Race at Phoenix Raceway.
Moreover, he had his approach mainly in the right frame of mind in terms of his confidence and focus.
From jump street, Gragson placed second in Stage 1 and third in Stage 2.
Along the way, he led 35 laps and seemed like he had a car that could be in the mix at the 1-mile track.
Gragson, who had the best JR Motorsports ride for the season finale, ran out of time with catching rival Ty Gibbs for the race victory and series championship.
Inside the final 45 laps, Gragson dropped from third to eighth after a slow pit stop just over 18 seconds.
It was a gallant effort for the fifth year NASCAR Xfinity Series competitor, especially as charged his way up to second spot.
Alas, it was all for naught as far as a championship was concerned for Gragson.
Still, he did not throw his pit crew under the bus as he pointed to the big picture of his situation.
“We came off pit road, we were in eighth, it was what it was. We still had laps left, and we still had opportunity. We weren’t wrecked,” Gragson observed. “We weren’t in the garage. We still had the opportunity.
“Just got beat there at the end. Started getting tight, probably needed to be a little freer.”
From crew chief Luke Lambert to the personnel at the shop and track, Gragson sang his praises for his No. 9 Bass Pro Shops/True Timber/Black Rifle Coffee Company Chevy Camaro team.
“(I’m) really proud of everyone’s efforts all year long,” he said. “That’s why I’m mad at the result a little bit, but I’m not. I felt like last year I was way more mad just because — I don’t know, I think this year I did my absolute best, like I can lay my head down after restarting eighth with 25, 30 to go and getting up to second and almost having a shot to win the race.”
Make no mistake that the young racer continually makes stride as far as his maturity is concerned. Perhaps this facet of his craft attributes as to why he will race full-time in Cup action next year.
“I’m content with that. I don’t think the driver a year ago, two years ago, three years ago would be able to do that,” he remarked. “I did my absolute best. I drove my ass off. I tried my best and gave it everything I had. Just got beat.”
As for the driver who bested him, Gragson did not hold back about Gibbs throughout the past week. That said, he pondered about his rival, particularly with his interaction with him during a summer race weekend.
“I think I’ve been in that position before. It takes a lot of things, and it’s to be honest with yourself, it’s to have honest people around you, to sit you down and say, hey, change needs to be made,” he recalled.
One of those changes seemed to be the dynamic shift between the two as Gragson and Gibbs shifted from friendship to foes.
“You know, I’ve had a conversation with Ty the day after Portland and Gateway and let him know how I felt, let him know if he gets into us, what the consequences are going to be,” he stated. “I used to be buddies with him when he was younger.
“You know, probably three, four years ago, he was a super cool kid. He really was. But I don’t know, it’s just kind of changed over the last couple years, and I’ve told him that, and he knows that.”
That said, Gragson did not mince words when he was asked more about his thoughts on Gibbs.
“I don’t want to really go into much more detail about that out of respect for him and whatnot, but I told him, ‘Hey, you used to be a super cool kid and you kind of turned into a little bit of a douchebag,'” he said with an earnest tone.
Despite coming up short on this year’s NASCAR Xfinity Series championship, Gragson is proud of his No. 9 team and time with JR Motorsports.
Now, he can look ahead to the 2023 season when he graduates to Cup competition with Petty GMS. Similarly, he cannot wait to race alongside one of the newest principles of the longrunning Cup team.
“I think the opportunity is massive for Petty GMS to be able to add Jimmie Johnson as a team owner role and teammate as he’s going to be driving some races,” he said. “I think having Jimmie Johnson as a mentor and a teammate and an owner and a friend, somebody who I can look up to and learn from, I don’t think there’s any negatives to it. I think there’s a lot of positives.”
Typically, Gragson does not hold back and expresses genuine confidence about his chances to win races and contend for the title. Some of his maturity is evident in terms of his thoughts on the steep challenges awaiting him in NASCAR’s premier division.
“For a young guy like myself who’s moving up to the Cup level, it’s going to be a rude awakening,” he quipped. “It really is.
“Every lap, every restart, every trip down pit road, every single time, everybody is good in the whole entire field. You’re not racing 10 guys, you’re racing 30 guys, so it’s a lot harder.”
If anyone is game for challenging times, Gragson can answer the bell as proven throughout his thriving career.
“There’s definitely going to be challenges,” he remarked. “There’s going to be adversity. It’s not going to be easy, and we have our work cut out for us.”