AVONDALE, Ariz. – Noah Gragson is no stranger to the Championship 4 battle in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
After all, the 24-year-old Las Vegas native raced his way into last year’s title quartet at Phoenix Raceway, placing 12th in the race and third in the standings.
This year, a reinvigorated but relaxed Gragson has taken the time to do what Neil Diamond urged in his 1970 hit song “Cracklin’ Rosie.”
The usually fast, nimble driver has taken it slow to enjoy a career season with his No. 9 Bass Pro Shops/TrueTimber/Black Rifle Coffee Chevy Camaro team. On the strength of eight wins, it has been a year with smiles, laughs and some Waffle House trips.
Moreover, it is about having fun in a high stakes, demanding sport like stock car racing. Gragson has changed his tune, for the better, as he graduates to NASCAR Cup Series competition with Petty GMS in 2023.
“I just have been trying to have as much fun as possible and enjoy it,” Gragson said. “It’s my last year in Xfinity so we obviously want to win.”
In 2021, Gragson showcased some of his fun side by letting his hair grow out and sporting his unique shades. Despite his expressive appearance, he was beyond focused.
“I think last year, I was not really myself,” he acknowledged. “I was so overly trying to be focused and didn’t appreciate the opportunity and didn’t enjoy it and take a second to look around and think, ‘Man, this is super cool.’ I was just very, very tunnel vision on the task at hand.”
Understandably, Gragson’s intensity was born out of good intentions with delivering a championship for JR Motorsports.
At times, the young driver’s tenacity would get the best of him, placing him in tough situations, whether on his own or with others around.
Throughout the 2022 season, save for some summertime setbacks, Gragson has been more like Oasis during their first leg of their 1995 tour versus their well documented excursion in 1996.
In this case, Gragson is having fun with this latest opportunity, his team, the press and with one of his title rivals in Ty Gibbs, mainly with the latter’s expense.’
“This year, I’ve just gone into it with a completely different approach of, ‘Hey, this is gonna be what it’s gonna be,'” he shared. “I feel like we’re prepared, don’t gotta change anything up.
“It’s going to be exciting and it’s definitely a privilege to be a part of this group of three and a half men and just really excited to race for a championship.”
There are no mind games about Gragson’s confidence and odds going into Saturday night’s NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship Race at Phoenix (6 p.m. ET on USA and MRN/SiriusXM NASCAR). Indeed, he has the utmost belief in himself, crew chief Luke Lambert and his entire No. 9 team.
“We’re obviously, I’d say, the top dog coming into this race weekend,” he quipped with an earnest tone. “We didn’t get here by accident. We have won and we’ve won a lot and we’ve earned our way into the Playoffs and final four.”
One of those victories occurred earlier this year at Phoenix, site of Gragson’s first triumphs of the 2022 season. Naturally, Gragson vies for a season sweep to ensure he captures his first Xfinity Series championship.
However, Gragson will take more than his plentiful wins and a potential title in this series.
Namely, he will cherish the memories he has enjoyed with JR Motorsports, particularly with Josh Berry, his teammate and fellow championship contender.
“I’ll just remember them as, not really competitors, (but) just friends,” he said. “I came out here on the flight… the same flight as (Josh Berry).
“His daughter was on the flight. I was kicking a water bottle with her at baggage claim on the ground, just trying to keep her entertained and what not. It was just fun.”
Through the wins and setbacks, Gragson will reflect fondly on his four year tenure with the 12-year-old Xfinity Series organization.
From Kelley Earnhardt Miller and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Rick Hendrick and all of the personnel at the track and shop, Gragson sees each of these individuals as more than colleagues.
“We’re a family. Just enjoying the time that we’ve got with each other,” Gragson shared. “We’ll still be friends at the end of the day.
“Being with each other every weekend for the past couple of years, it’s definitely emotional with this last one.”
Luis Torres contributed to this feature directly on-site from Phoenix and Avondale, Arizona.