Noah Gragson honestly needs no introduction. The 23-year old driver of the No. 9 Bass Pro Shops / TrueTimber / Black Rifle Coffee Company Chevrolet Camaro for JR Motorsports in the NASCAR Xfinity Series season is brash, bold and flat-out entertaining.
The Las Vegas-native has six wins in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, including one earlier this year at Phoenix, but Gragson’s performance this past weekend at Richmond Raceway was equally impressive as his victory at Phoenix.
It was a truly gutsy effort by Gragson, who felt he had a race-winning caliber car at the beginning of the race. Just as he was making his move for the lead in Stage 1, issues developed.
“The guys brought a really fast race car [to Richmond]. I felt like we were going to be in a position to be maybe the top dog at the end of it, just with how good the car felt so early on,” Gragson said in an interview with TobyChristie.com. “I was just cruising behind John Hunter, waiting for them watching them burn their stuff up in the first Stage. I was about to make my move to pass them, and unfortunately, that’s when the brake issue happened.”
While what caused the brake issues has yet to be determined by JR Motorsports, Gragson says a brake line appears to have been cut during the race.
“I think we cut a brake line,” Gragson explained. “They’re still diagnosing the problem, but basically cut a rear brake line and had no fluid in the brake lines, just ran all of that out. That made it extremely challenging to slow the car down, obviously, with no pedal. Had to start lifting super early and tried my best to make laps and went a lap down there at the end. But tried to gather as many points as possible and make the most of it.”
Gragson did make the most of it. Incredibly, not only was he able to make it to the end of Stage 1 without pitting to address the issue, but somehow Gragson managed to score a second-place finish in the Stage, scoring nine Stage Points for his troubles.
Under the Stage Caution, the No. 9 team went to work to attempt to diagnose the issue. It was at that point it appeared a brake line had been cut, so the team made adjustments to circumvent the problem.
Only one issue: They guessed wrong on which brake line was cut.
“We then clamped the left rear brake line, we thought it was the left rear, it ended up being the right rear. So, that exploded the left rear rotor. We had no brakes at all in the rear,” Gragson explained.
Gragson’s rotor explosion littered the track with debris, which brought out the only non-Stage caution of the race on lap 77. Under this caution, Gragson made the only move he could, he dialed the brake bias all the way to the front brakes, which isn’t ideal, because it causes a car to become super tight.
But, handling be damned, at least he would have stopping power. Well, that is until the front brakes became toast as well.
“We had the fronts, but then wore through the front brake pads and just had zero stopping power from then on,” Gragson recalled. “Really, early second Stage on. But everybody kept their heads on and kept fighting and we’ll live to see another day.”
Somehow, Gragson was able to get his car to the end of Stage 2, and he ran the final 90 laps of the race under green in the final Stage of the race to score a 21st-place finish.
With no brakes, Gragson managed to only finish one lap off the pace at a short track without a bevy of cautions to help him stay caught up to the field. It was a truly incredible performance and Gragson chalks it up to the never give up attitude that he and his team carry on their sleeves.
“I mean, just never giving up,” Gragson said of how he persevered Saturday at the 0.750-mile track in Virginia.
After maximizing on what could have been a truly disastrous day, Gragson left Richmond with a one point lead over Kaulig Racing’s AJ Allmendinger for the series point lead.
For Gragson, who started the season off with four-consecutive top-three finishes, he feels even when bad things happen, like they did on Saturday, the planets are still aligning for them.
“I just think things are going our way,” Gragson stated. “Really happy with where we are at as a team. I think all the personnel on the team we’re all good buddies and like to have fun and really enjoying the opportunity that we got. Just trying to have fun and be prepared when we get to the racetrack and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
While breaks — or I guess brakes — are falling their way, Gragson is also really gelling well with his new crew chief Luke Lambert. Many questioned how Dave Elenz moving on to the NASCAR Cup Series would affect the performance of the No. 9 team.
It’s been a smooth transition, so far.
“We’ve gotten off to a good start, obviously, the first four races. Just really enjoy working with Luke,” Gragson explained. “He’s just cool, he likes to have fun. He enjoys the preparation side of it and works really hard. It’s been a lot of fun thus far. I’m excited to see what we can do and see all the success we can have together.”
Through seven races, the pairing of Gragson and Lambert have combined for five top-five finishes and Gragson is now entering a track he is very comfortable with — Martinsville Speedway and he’s already tackling how to improve.
“It’s a great track for us. Actually, just got done watching last year’s race at Martinsville and just trying to learn from that and how we can be better,” Gragson admitted. “I know we won the race, but you can always be better and make better decisions throughout the race and whatnot. That was kind of our goal going there last year was to win the race and we got it done. I know we want to do the same thing this year, so, we’re going to try our best.”
Another interesting wrinkle this weekend is that Gragson will be lining up against his boss, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is making his once-a-year NASCAR Xfinity Series start. Dale Jr. is quite the shoe at Martinsville, but Gragson believes he’s up for the challenge.
“Racing the bossman this weekend, Dale, he’ll be pretty challenging, I would assume,” Gragson said. “We’re going to have to wait to see, but I think we have the team to do it.”
In his start last season at Richmond Raceway, Earnhardt ruffled the feathers of Josh Williams as he initiated contact a few times with Williams, which miffed the underdog racer.
After that race, the two sought each other out on pit road, and everyone left the scene with smiles.
Would Gragson lay over on Friday night if his boss gets into him?
“Nah, I’d give it back,” Gragson replied instantly. “When I’m on the track, I don’t see who is driving the cars, I see cars that I need to beat and just competition this week. I do whatever it takes to be the best guy out there.”
It’s this win at all costs and battle tooth and nail for every position mantra that has elevated Gragson into being a fan favorite in the NASCAR Xfinity Series garage. Gragson, who often partakes in a post-race celebratory beer shotgun with fans after his wins, is taken aback by his popularity.
“I’m grateful for all of the support from all the fans. I’m very thankful,” Gragson said. “It’s pretty surreal, just even having fans. I never really thought I would have fans. Being able to see people wearing my t-shirts and cheering me on.”
Not only do they cheer his name, but Gragson’s fans let him leave his mark on them, quite literally.
“I mean, I signed a girl’s arm last week in Richmond, and she went and got it tattooed,” Gragson stated. “I thought she was pretty ballsy for that, but pretty awesome at the same time. Super grateful for all of that support from all of the fans, definitely hear it in driver intros, they make it really rowdy, which is cool. It’s fun for me as well. I enjoy them hyping me up.”
It feels like Gragson is NASCAR’s Happy Gilmore while the rest of the field is made up of Shooter McGavins. But Gragson and his enthusiastic fanbase are, without a doubt, a refreshing sight in the world of NASCAR.
Gragson will carry his legion of fans into the half-mile paperclip this weekend at Martinsville as he is on a quest to snag his third-career NASCAR National Series win at the iconic Virginia short track, which has been on the NASCAR schedule since NASCAR’s first Cup Series season back in 1948.