MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Forgive Noah Gragson if there was an element of "here we go again" to his Martinsville Speedway debut in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
The first two races of his rookie season had barely begun before trouble struck -- the Lap 3 crash at Daytona, the Lap 2 spin at Atlanta. In Saturday's Martinsville matinee, a mishap waited until Lap 101, when contact with fellow rookie Chase Briscoe sent Gragson's Kyle Busch Motorsports No. 18 Toyota into a Turn 2 spin.
"I thought our day was over," said Gragson, a current member of the NASCAR Next initiative. "We were running, say, in the top five and the 29 (Briscoe) took us out in the left-rear and cheap-shotted us. But my guys at Kyle Busch Motorsports -- crew guys, pit-stop guys -- they didn't give up on me. We kept fighting till the end and managed to get a fourth-place finish.
"First time to Martinsville, I'm just so thankful for everyone who makes this possible."
Gragson's methodical rally turned back a handful of factors working against him. Among those was the race track itself, the tricky .526-mile layout that tends to be most demanding on newcomers. Add to that a rainy Friday that reduced valuable practice time to just an hour, leaving Gragson to learn as he navigated Saturday's 250-lapper.
On the plus side, Gragson found his way with the help of top-shelf equipment from the KBM stables, sage advice from team owner Kyle Busch over the team radio communications, and veteran crew chief Marcus Richmond reassuring him after his early setbacks.
"We've had some shaky starts here in the beginning, the first two races," said Richmond, in his first year with the Kyle Busch-owned team. "Noah's a good short-track racer, coming from short tracks, so I think Martinsville fell right into his place. And we've just been preaching to him to stay calm. Just do your deal, don't get excited, and it'll come to you in the end."
It eventually did Saturday, when Gragson ran third in the late stages before ceding the position to defending series champ Johnny Sauter with 37 laps remaining. He still emerged with his career-first top-five finish and a longing to return to Martinsville -- "my new favorite race track," he says -- in the fall.
"This is huge for myself gaining confidence, the team … we needed this," Gragson said. "We were struggling after those first two races. Takes a little weight off my shoulders knowing that I can run with these guys in the top five."