By Toby Christie, Editor — Follow on Twitter @Toby_Christie
FORT WORTH, Texas — Following Friday night’s JAG Metals 350 at Texas Motor Speedway, one of the favorites for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship, Noah Gragson stood in disbelief over how badly his night went. Gragson was noticeably peeved with his hands on his hips. His face was red from where his helmet had been pressed against his skin for nearly two hours, and his eyes were slightly teared up.
But how did the 20-year-old end up so frustrated on a night where he rolled off from the outside pole position?
It was a combination of factors. A pit road miscue, followed by being swept up in a crash, and ultimately competing on a single groove racetrack, where passing was not a good idea around 80-percent of the 1.5-mile speedway.
When the race began, Gragson looked like a force to be reckoned with for the win. The Las Vegas-native worked his way to the lead on lap seven, and he paced the field for two circuits before Justin Haley found a way around the No. 18 Safelite Toyota Tundra.
Gragson would remain in solid contention until a pitstop in the caution period between stages one and two.
“Took fuel during the first caution. Fuel man didn’t get engaged, so that put us back. Ended up taking four tires. Came off pit road in last pretty much,” Gragson explains.
Gragson would come off pit road in 24th-position. When the green flag waved for Stage 2, a melee ensued a lap later. The crash swept up eight trucks, including Gragson who was mired deep in the tight pack. The rest of the race would become a struggle for Gragson.
“Was never really good after [the crash]. I don’t know,” the dejected driver said.
Although his truck was no longer a potential race winning vehicle, Gragson had still worked his way inside the top-10 by the mid-way point of the race. However, as he ran up on more competitive trucks, Gragson realized he was boxed in as Texas Motor Speeway’s race groove is still in the process of widening out after a fresh repave a couple of years ago.
“It’s just one groove really. You can’t race side by side which sucks,” Gragson seethed. “I feel like, it’s just really challenging to race here, you know? It’s basically impossible to pass.”
Gragson would hang in there and when the checkered flag was displayed at the end of 147 laps, the No. 18 truck was scored in the 10th position. Considering all that Gragson went through 10th was an incredible recovery, but could he consider his finish a silver lining?
“Not a bit. Not a bit at all,” Gragson stated emphatically.
The Kyle Busch Motorsports driver would continue by voicing his frustrations that he hasn’t been torching his rear tires in jubilation recently, like his GMS Racing rivals — Johnny Sauter and Justin Haley — have done the last couple of weeks.
“It’s unacceptable that we are not winning races. And I will put all the blame on myself. I am the leader of this team, and I have a great team behind me. We just need to execute and do our job and turn this around, because it’s unacceptable,” Gragson admitted.
Gragson leaves the lone star state fourth in the championship standings, which does have him in a position to advance if things were to end now, but ISM Raceway in Phoenix is not a walk in the park. That track has been notorious for wiping out championship contending drivers over the years, and there is also the variable of someone behind Gragson in the standings — Grant Enfinger or Matt Crafton — winning the race and knocking out the 18 team.
The pressure will be on. A week from now, we will truly know what the No. 18 team is made of.
Photo: Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
Toby is the Founder, Editor and go-to man for TobyChristie.com. He is the co-host of The Final Lap Weekly Podcast. Additionally, Toby is a NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) award winning writer, and has followed the sport as a fan since 1993.