Noah Gragson is entering his third season driving JR Motorsports’ No. 9 car after winning two races and finishing fifth in the NASCAR Xfinity Series standings in 2020. One of those wins came in the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway, something he’ll try to defend this Saturday (Feb. 13) when the NXS schedule kicks off.
The 22-year-old nearly made the NXS Championship 4 last year, but a pass from Harrison Burton in the final corner of the Round of 8 race at Texas Motor Speedway kept Gragson from advancing. The duo also had a run-in earlier in the season, resulting in a punch from Gragson that left a mark on Burton. How will that rivalry impact his 2021?
Gragson also has a lot more on his plate this Speedweeks. He’ll attempt to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in Sunday’s (Feb. 14) Daytona 500, piloting the No. 62 for Beard Motorsports. Gragson takes over the car, which runs a limited schedule, after former driver and fellow Las Vegas native Brendan Gaughan’s retirement. He was Gaughan’s second option after Jimmie Johnson declined the ride. However, the team’s future is up in the air beyond Daytona, as team owner Mark Beard passed away on Jan. 31.
On top of that, Gragson has to race his way into the event through Thursday night’s Duels. He was not able to post a qualifying time Wednesday night after failing inspection three times.
Frontstretch caught up with Gragson to discuss the Daytona 500 attempt with Beard, his Cup future, the momentum of JRM’s No. 9 car and his rivalry with Burton.
Michael Massie, Frontstretch: You got anything big potentially happening on Sunday?
Noah Gragson: I’m either gonna be participating in a race and hopefully racing for a checkered flag, or I’m gonna be watching. So I’m hoping for racing. I don’t know. I’ll let you know after Thursday night.
Massie: How are the nerves as you’re approaching the Duels and then what could be your first Cup race, and not only your first Cup race, but your first Daytona 500?
Gragson: Yeah, it’s a really special opportunity to be able to make my first Cup start. That’s what I’ve been dreaming of my entire life, and then to do it, hopefully, at the Daytona 500. It’s a surreal feeling. So there’s a lot of pressure that comes along with that.
It’s been a busy past couple weeks just trying to get fitted in the Cup car and everything dialed in. With it being a new team and whatnot, there’s a lot of things they need to know about me and to get me comfortable inside the racecar, things that are almost second nature. I mean, you don’t think about just where you want your water bottle position, how you like your steering wheel, different stuff like that.
And so there’s there’s been a lot of little things that that we’ve been working on here lately, and it’s been pretty busy. But yeah, there’s a lot of pressure going into the Daytona 500, having a qualifier weigh in, but I know that we got a team that’s capable. We have [crew chief] Darren Shaw, he’s a one-man band over there at Beard Motorsports, which I think’s really special and cool. You got other teams with 400-600 employees, and then you got our team, where it’s just one guy.
So we’ll get some help down when we get to Daytona. But Darren’s been doing it all, our crew chief and our team leader, so that’ll be really special to be able to run that race. A lot of pressure, like I said, and then a lot of motivation, trying to get the car locked into the race and do the best job possible for the Beard family and especially Mr. [Mark] Beard.
Massie: Yeah, that was sad to hear about Mark Beard’s passing. Did you ever get a chance to meet him?
Gragson: I didn’t get a chance to meet him. I’ve been in communication with their family over the past several weeks, and they sent me a very nice Christmas gift and card and whatnot. That was very generous of them. But no, I haven’t been able to meet Mr. Beard or any of the family yet in person. But hopefully we can do him proud. And I know he’ll be watching this next Sunday coming up.
— Noah Gragson (@NoahGragson) February 8, 2021
Massie: Have you ever had races where you had to race your way in like you will Thursday night?
Gragson: I’ve had to do a couple times in super late model races, but never at this level. I mean, super late model racing is really competitive. But I guess I should say not on this stage in competition — a lot of great race car drivers, a lot of great teams. And there’s a lot of pressure that comes along with it. But I’m excited to attack the opportunity and attack the challenges that are going to come. They’ve [Beard] been fast in the races they’ve run in their past, and Brendan Gaughan, leaning on him a lot for advice. He’s done a really good job at finishing in the top 10 in a lot of these races. I think he finished seventh in the Daytona 500 last year. So that’s really special and really cool to see them be able to go out there and do that. So I know I have a great opportunity, and now it’s just time to go do it.
Massie: Gaughan said that he first reached out to Jimmie Johnson to drive this car. And Johnson said no. How does it feel to be the second option behind some guy who’s only won seven championships?
Gragson: I never thought that I would even be in the same sentence as Jimmie Johnson, so that’s really special in and of itself. And either Brendan thinks highly of me or there just weren’t any other guys available. But I hopefully think that he thinks highly of me.
He’s been a great friend of both myself and our family, obviously, with his Vegas roots and my Vegas roots. I’ve always been a big fan of Brendan, and he has been a great friend and mentor to myself. Really, throughout my racing career from when I was starting out and coming up through the ranks, he was always my biggest critic. It might not have been the things I wanted to hear in the moment, but he cares a lot about me, and it’s all been for the good.
I really enjoy Brendan’s personality. He’s a great guy, he’s hilarious. I mean, how could you not love just being around Brendan, listening to his interviews and whatnot? I listen to every word he’s got to say, take it to heart and try to benefit from it, because he’s a really smart guy and a great guy who cares a lot about, really, all race car drivers, and I’m lucky to be able to call him a mentor of mine.
Massie: Do you plan on doing any more races in the Beard car?
Gragson: No, I don’t. I only have this one on my schedule. So it’s kind of like the old saying, ‘Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.’
I’m grateful for the opportunity with the Beard family, allowing me to drive their race car and thinking highly enough of me to be able to compete for one [spot in] the Daytona 500. … So right now my focus is on just trying to make the Daytona 500 and race our way into try to win the race. … We haven’t said anything about other races. I don’t know what their plan is moving forward.
Last thing I heard is that Brendan said that this was their last race when he initially called me the first time, and they asked him to do it but he said, ‘No, I’m retired. I’m not gonna do a Brett Favre here.’ So he said [to me], ‘I want you to run it.’ And that’s what’s even more special is, from what I know, what Brendan has told me, this could be their last race, so I don’t know.
Massie: It’s your third year in Xfinity, and now you’re starting to get your feet wet in Cup a little bit. I think most would assume that you’re kind of priming yourself to jump to Cup in 2022. So does that make this Xfinity season kind of a make-or-break year?
Gragson: I don’t know if it’s a make-or-break year, but I just need to focus on doing my job and driving the racecar to the max of its capabilities and going as fast as I can in it and in performing as best I can. I’d like to win as many races as possible, I guess all 33. But if I can just do the best job I can do, hopefully, it catches some people’s eyes … The goal is to go Cup racing one day, hopefully, in the future. I don’t know when that is. I’m kind of on a year-to-year timeline … Hopefully, we keep [our sponsors] happy and I try to do everything I can to put the car out front. That’s the most important thing. But yeah, I don’t know really where my future is after this year. The goal one day would be to go Cup racing.
Massie: Excluding the Kansas wreck late last season, you had all top threes through the playoffs. How does that make you feel about heading into this year after ending on that kind of note?
Gragson: Well, it’s definitely motivating, and I’ve gotten to know the No. 9 team. We’ve been with each other now going on our third year. So being able to build those relationships the first year and then last year, man, we had a blast at all those racetracks and going into these different places.
You have your teams, and then I feel like you have your brotherhood or your family. And really, the No. 9 team, we’re just a big family. And we’re all there for each other at the end of the day. I go to my crew guy Dex [Ryan Dextraze, undercar mechanic], his daughter’s basketball games and softball games, and then hanging out with my crew chief [Dave Elenz] … We always seem like we’re together and hanging out outside of work, which I think is really special. We don’t have that much time away from each other.
I’m motivated to get it going. Dave Elenz, he’s a great team leader of our team and really smart with the race cars and his strategies. So yeah, it motivates me to get back in the racecar and hopefully keep that top-three streak alive.
Massie: It means you don’t hate each other if you’re hanging out away from the track, right?
Gragson: Oh, yeah. … He [Elenz] has a 4-year-old son, and I’m 22. And I don’t have a girlfriend or wife or kids or anything. I hope I don’t have kids. So Dave’s son, I go over to their house quite regularly and hang out with their family, we go to dinner. And I always play with his older son, who’s 4, his younger son’s 2. And the older son asked if he could have a sleepover with me a few weeks ago to his mom. She told me about it, and she’s like, ‘Yeah, dude asked this.’ But she was joking to me about actually going through with it. I’m like, ‘Hell yeah, let’s do it.’ So I had a sleepover with my crew chief’s son. So yeah, that’s how our relationship is as a team, we’re all pretty much family at this point.
Massie: Last year, one of your biggest highlights came outside the race car when you landed a right hook on Harrison Burton. Later in the season, he spoils your chance at the Championship 4 by passing you in the final turn to win Texas. Are you guys on good terms, or are we in for another year of an exciting rivalry?
Memorable Moments of the 2020 NASCAR Season.
No. 18: Noah Gragson and Harrison Burton scuffled following Kentucky. It wasn’t the best fight we’ve seen, but it showed the emotion (and frustration) of young drivers trying to prove themselves. pic.twitter.com/iA15qtWDBD
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) December 3, 2020
Gragson: Yeah, I mean, I got nothing against Harrison. I’m not buddies with him, but I respect him and I respect his family. I think he’s a good race car driver. It’s not out of disrespect, and I don’t know if he’s the reason why we spoiled our chances at racing for a championship. I hit the bump in [Turns] 3 and 4 [at Texas] … The last three laps, we ran the same lap times of that race and up until that point when I hit the bump, so it just kind of happened to where he beat us that lap. … So I don’t know, I guess he spoiled it. But it’s more on our own doing that we didn’t win the race, and my own doing.
I told him [Burton] good job after he beat us at Martinsville [Speedway] and saw him at Media Day, said, ‘What’s up?’ But other than that, I don’t really have a reason to talk to him or hang out with him. I know we’ll continue to race each other hard. … So yeah, we’ll just see what happens on the racetrack. And I know the fans are calling it a rivalry, so if that’s what gets them talking, that’s what I like. I’m not going to do anything intentional. But he’s a fast race car driver, and we’ve been up in the front with our team, and I’m sure we’re going to be around each other a lot this year.