Now in his fourth year with JR Motorsports, Noah Gragson finds himself at the top of the NASCAR Xfinity Series standings after a historic start to the season.
Gragson started the season with four straight top-three finishes (including a dominant win at Phoenix Raceway), joining Kevin Harvick as the only other driver in Xfinity history to accomplish that. And Gragson did that in his first four races with new crew chief Luke Lambert. The streak ended this past weekend when Gragson was involved in a crash at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
But the Las Vegas native has more on his plate this season in addition to his NXS duties. He made his Cup debut in the Daytona 500 this February with Beard Motorsports, one year after missing the race following a crash in his Duel race. He’s expected to run all the superspeedway races with Beard and will also run 14 Cup races for Kaulig Racing. His first race with Kaulig was this past weekend at Atlanta, where he crashed out, and his next will be at Bristol Motor Speedway’s dirt event in April.
Gragson caught up with Frontstretch before Atlanta, and he discussed the hot start with his new crew chief, racing with more maturity, how the Kaulig deal came together and what he hopes to accomplish in his Cup starts.
Michael Massie, Frontstretch: You had a historic start with those four top-three finishes, you’re leading the points and you won a race. What’s been clicking out the gate so far this season that maybe you didn’t have those first three seasons?
Noah Gragson: I don’t know if we’re really doing anything different compared to years past. It’s just kind of working for us. Really happy with where we’re at as a race team. I’m really happy with my communication with Luke Lambert, my crew chief, and the rest of the team. We’re all really confident right now and riding this wave of momentum and just having fun at the same time. I don’t know if we’ve really changed anything, but yeah, it’s just flowing right now.
Massie: You mentioned Luke Lambert. Obviously, you guys have gelled pretty well to start the year. What did you guys do ahead of the season to prepare to work together?
Gragson: Just talked a little bit. Went to Austin together, tested a car with Skip Barber out there at COTA [Circuit of the Americas]. Other than that, not much. We really hit it off right from the beginning. Our communication has just been really good right off the get go. So I don’t know. It’s kind of just super easy the way it’s been going so far, the way we communicate. It’s like we’ve known each other for 10 years. So it’s pretty cool.
Massie: Skip Barber at COTA sounds pretty fun. How was that?
Gragson: Yeah, it was fun to drive. I drove like a regular street car there and then drove an open-wheel Formula 4 car at the end of the day just for like three or four laps just to see if they let me drive it, which is awesome.
Massie: Is that anything you want to try down the road?
Gragson: I think the Indy 500 would be cool.
Massie: When I talked to you last year, you told me that you spent a lot of time with Dave Elenz’ kids and there was kind of a bond there. Has there been any kind of way where you’ve been able to connect with Luke Lambert yet in the same manner?
Gragson: Yeah, like I was saying, Luke is awesome, man. And Dave is great too. It’s just more an opportunity to keep learning, and I feel like with Dave, we were finishing each other’s sentences. And now we have a new challenge with Luke, and that’s to learn each other now and get to know each other just as good as I got to know Dave. And I feel like we’re off to a great start. Luke has fun. We joke around on the radio and stuff and have a good time. It’s been good so far.
Massie: This year, there’s been good results, and you’ve kind of been a lot quieter in getting them, more methodical in your races. Is there anything different your mental approach to races?
Gragson: Yeah, probably am — this is my fourth year in Xfinity. So having the same group of guys, for the most part, around me and being with the same team and everything, everything flows really smoothly. And I know what to look forward to. And my focus has kind of shifted. When you come into the Xfinity Series, you’re like, ‘Oh man, I don’t know what to look for,’ and you’re just trying to get the car around the track as fast as you can.
Now, I know the feeling that I need out of the car. We’re bringing the fast racecars to the track, and at the same time, it’s now shifted over to how can I manage the races, how can I manage pit road. I used to really try and — I had to win every corner and I had to win just everywhere. And you still got to do that. But I’d maybe be at 110%, where now I know the cars are fast enough, I can be a little bit more conservative and a little more patient. I think that’s where I’ve kind of matured throughout the years in the Xfinity Series. From the beginning to now, it’s just being a lot more patient with it.
Massie: So if you could go back and tell the rookie you to do anything different, what would you do?
Gragson: I wouldn’t do anything different, because I feel like that I used all those opportunities to learn from and mistakes to learn from. I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I’m gonna have a lot more in the future. But at the same time, I take those opportunities of failures as almost like a first attempt in learning. You got to make those mistakes to be able to learn, and it makes you better. Eventually, there won’t be any more mistakes to make. You just can’t make the same mistake twice.
Massie: On to Cup — last year, you came so close to making your Cup debut before getting caught up in that crash in the Duel. What was it like having to wait a full year until you got to make your Cup debut this past February?
Gragson: I think it just made it that much sweeter. It was definitely a bummer. But the opportunity that I have with the Beard family — I can’t say enough about about the Beard family and Beard Motorsports and Brendan Gaughan, they really took a chance on me to come drive their racecar. And with the passing of Mr. [Mark] Beard, that was definitely a bummer to not make the race and come back this year. And we had a really strong run this year. I was gonna pan out to be sixth. We were running seventh […] and then got turned by the 4 car [Harvick]. Just the right place at the wrong time. I felt like we set ourselves up for a good opportunity. Just came up a little short.
Massie: What was that experience like of making the race and being able to say you raced in the Daytona 500?
Gragson: Yeah, it’s a pretty surreal moment. It’s amazing just to be able to look at my career — and really, it’s not about me, it’s about everybody who’s helped get me to this point in my career and all the hard work, sacrifice and dedication. It takes a lot of people, it takes a village. I’m grateful to have those people surrounding me throughout my career. That was really cool to be able to drive in the Daytona 500, but it was more special just knowing all the hard work and sacrifices taken by everybody to help get me to this point. It’s a surreal moment, but it’s definitely one of those deals where it’s a privilege to be there and couldn’t do it without everybody.
Massie: This week, you’ve got your first start with Kaulig Racing. What are your thoughts going into that?
Gragson: I hope to be competitive, hopefully have some fast cars and go out there and run good. But I just want to learn, gain respect from the other guys and hopefully put out a good showing.
Massie: How did the deal come together with you and Kaulig?
Gragson: Chris Rice [Kaulig general manager] came to us last year, and he asked if we’re interested in driving his racecars and Mr. Kaulig, Matt Kaulig’s racecars. And we were like, ‘Heck yeah, let’s try it.’ Ended up having the opportunity for 14 races. And I know we haven’t done it yet, but we’re excited for the opportunity.
Massie: You got the 14 races and I believe you got four with Beard. So you’re doing about half the Cup schedule. Was there ever a thought of trying to piece together a full schedule and running for Cup points this year?
Gragson: Not this year, not piecing together. Our priority is the Xfinity Series and JR Motorsports. That’s my priority, and that’s to win a championship and win races over here. I don’t know if it’s really what you want to call the the Cup schedule this year, but it’s more of an opportunity to gain experience and hopefully open some eyes, maybe an audition in a sense. So with that being said, it’s definitely a great opportunity that we got with both Beard Motorsports and Kaulig Racing, and I’m excited for the opportunity ahead.
Massie: How different are these three teams that you race for? Because I imagine all three of them are kind of night and day from each other.
Gragson: Yeah, I mean, they’re a little bit different, in a sense. But at the same time, they don’t really feel too corporate, any of them, if that makes sense. You have some teams where they feel really corporate, and there’s a lot of pressure. Guys are there to clock in and clock out. Where everybody is really hungry, it seems like with these three teams. And I feel like with all three teams, I can really be myself and be the best driver I can be. I can be loose, I can be comfortable and cool, calm and collected. I’m excited to run with all three of them. I think they’re all unique in their own way. But at the same time, they’re really laid back and relaxed, and that’s where I feel most comfortable and confident, in a situation like that.
Massie: I can’t help notice your Cup schedule really picks up right at the end of the year. I believe you’re running the last four races in a row. 1. You don’t think that’d be a distraction at all from going for the Xfinity championship? 2. Is that any kind of preparation for the jump to Cup in 2023?
Gragson: We’ve kind of been on a year-to-year deal. We start putting the pieces together, and it’s really got to start right now, for next year. And through the course of the next three or four months, you pretty much want to have a deal done and getting the season started out right. I think we kind of opened some eyes and that might open up some opportunities to race for some different teams in the future. But, right now, it’s just trying to look forward to being the best that we can each and every weekend. I haven’t really put a whole lot of thought on what’s next in my career. It’s just trying to have the best 2022 season we can. And with that being said, hopefully, we can open some eyes and have an opportunity for next year.
Massie: What’s it like being the veteran now in the Xfinity Series? Now you’ve got all these younger guys that are coming in and are raw, and you’re the experienced guy and the leader.
Gragson: Yeah, I mean, with it being my fourth year, I know what to look for, I know how I need the car to drive. I kind of have that experience, and yeah, that helps me when I get to the racetrack on the weekend, just being able to really maximize everything and know what to look for. When you’re new to it, you don’t know really what questions to ask, but as time goes on, you gain experience and go through different scenarios and situations and there’s trial and error, you start to learn on what you need and what you need to look for. So I’m definitely probably one of the most confident guys when I get to the racetrack on the weekends and probably one of the most laid-back too. Not really stressed out. There’s no real expectations other than executing and minimizing mistakes. And I know if we can do that we should have an opportunity to be in the running each and every race.
About the author
Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.
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