Noah Gragson is set to take on the biggest opportunity of his career. The Las Vegas native joins Kyle Busch Motorsports after spending three years developing in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series divisions.
Gragson has big shoes to fill, replacing William Byron, who dominated the Camping World Truck Series field throughout the 2016 season. But expectations are no different for this 18-year-old, attempting to win KBM another title and produce the type of multi-win season that got Byron a promotion to XFINITY with Hendrick Motorsports. It will be up to the teenager, then to perform early and often in Toyota-powered equipment that’s been at or near the top of the standings for several years.
Frontstretch spoke with Gragson, who discusses his move to the Truck Series, along with the NASCAR Next program, Kyle Busch’s impact on him and more.
Joseph Wolkin, Frontstretch.com: You have this opportunity with Kyle Busch Motorsports. What are your expectations for 2017?
Noah Gragson: First off, I’m really excited and very thankful for the opportunity. I want to be realistic and I think that if I can just finish in the top 10 and top 5 and finish these races, that’s the main goal right now. I need to get experience, learn these racetracks and my Toyota Tundra for next year. It’s going to take some time, and fortunately, I was able to make two starts at the end of last year at Phoenix and Homestead (16th and 15th). I got a slight taste to what it’s going to be like in 2017, and I’m just very thankful for the opportunity.
Wolkin: With those two starts at the end of last year, what did you learn in those races that will help you for next season?
Gragson: Coming from racing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series, we typically run 150-lap long races on one set of tires, so we have to save our tires for over 100 laps. Once I got into the truck races, we have pit stops and a couple of sets of tires. The biggest thing I learned is that once the green flag drops, the competitors that I was racing against really get after it. They’re 100 percent on every lap.
It took a little bit for me to adjust after coming from the K&N side, where you’re in save-mode for about 75 percent of the race. Going to the truck race, you’re all out 100 percent of the time. Just getting comfortable with that and driving the truck to the limit every lap took a little bit for me. The way the trucks handle behind each other and in traffic is a huge difference, too.
Wolkin: You’re replacing William Byron, who had a historic rookie year. Do you feel like you’ll be comparing yourself to him?
Gragson: I’m going to try not to. He did something that was – I don’t know what I would call it – I guess something remarkable. No other driver has ever been able to do that in history. For him to be able to come in as a rookie and win seven races is unbelievable. I definitely want to win seven races, but the odds of that are very difficult.
I’m trying to be realistic, and that’s just being able to finish all of the laps and, hopefully, we can get a few wins by the end of the season and compete for a championship. Ultimately, if I can do my best and do my job, that will put a smile on my face at the end of the day.
Wolkin: Who have you been leaning on the most at Kyle Busch Motorsports to prepare you for your first season?
Gragson: I’ve been talking with Kyle [Busch] a lot lately, just asking for advice, whether it’s on restarts or if I’m behind a guy and trying to pass him, what’s the best way to get by him at a certain track. Thankfully for me, I’m in a position where I can lean on experience like a Kyle Busch, one of the best that the Cup Series has ever seen. I’m very excited to work with him more as we get into the season.
Wolkin: When did you first meet Kyle?
Gragson: I met for the first time when I had a meeting with him a few months ago over at KBM in his office. I was star-struck when I first met him. I was like, ‘oh my gosh, it’s Kyle Busch.’ I still get that way when I see Kyle Busch or I get opportunity to meet some of the other Cup drivers and even some of the XFINITY Series drivers. I started racing only four-and-a-half years ago, so to be in the position to meet these guys makes me smile from ear-to-ear. It’s just unbelievable to meet them.
Wolkin: What do you feel like Kyle brings to you not only as a driver and owner, but as a friend as well?
Gragson: Obviously, Kyle Busch Motorsports is a household name. I would say they have the best program in the Camping World Truck Series with what they’ve been able to do. I walked into the shop for the first time about four years ago, and I saw all of the trophies. Inside of the shop, they had all the win banners.
Knowing I’ll be stepping into the shoes of drivers like Erik Jones, William Byron, Christopher Bell, Bubba Wallace and guys like that, and to be racing under Kyle Busch’s name is an honor. I’m very appreciative to everyone in my career who has helped me get to this point. Just being able to work with everyone at Kyle Busch Motorsports is a dream come true. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I’m really looking forward to.
Wolkin: You are entering the Toyota family of drivers after working with a Ford-backed team. What do you feel like the biggest difference is going to be?
Gragson: They’ve really offered me a lot of support that I’m thankful for. They were part of the reason why we went with Kyle Busch Motorsports. We were talking to some other teams, but what Kyle Busch Motorsports and Toyota added onto the program, it was really a no-brainer. We felt like we had to go with Kyle Busch Motorsports and that’s what we did. The support they were offering showed they over-delivered.
At the beginning of the 2016 season, I was sitting with my best friend, Gracin’ [Raz], and we were doing fantasy NASCAR lineups for the Daytona 500. I picked everyone on the Toyota squad, with all of the Joe Gibbs Racing guys and Martin Truex, Jr. I ended up winning the fantasy league by like 30 points. They definitely run strong everywhere they go, so I’m really thankful to be in the Toyota family.
Wolkin: Being a NASCAR Next member, what does that program bring to you?
Gragson: It’s an honor to be one of 11 drivers NASCAR feels has the potential to move on through the levels in NASCAR. To be picked for that is mind-blowing. I still have a long way to go, but this is definitely a step in the right direction. NASCAR Next is a great program. They’ve been able to help me a lot with off-track stuff, like interviews, how to brand myself and make myself better personally. Being able to work with the folks over at NASCAR has been great and it’s definitely paying off. I’ve definitely improved with the off-track responsibility side of things.
Wolkin: Speaking of marketability, you have to battle against your peers on the track and with sponsors. How do you convince sponsors to fund your efforts over someone with a very similar resume?
Gragson: It is definitely hard racing against all of your buddies and friends off the racetrack. Once you put the helmet on, you guys are competitors. I try to differ myself from them. I like to be unique and be myself. I want to let the fans know the person you see at the racetrack is the person you see at home or anywhere else.
I try to be myself and do things my own way. I want to stand out a little bit – not in a bad way – but just by being unique. My main goal is to be myself. I love meeting fans and interacting with all of the different people who come to the racetrack.
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