DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It was a first for Noah Gragson. It was more of the same for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
When a wreck on the backstretch at Daytona International Speedway ended Saturday’s NASCAR Racing Experience 300, Gragson was in the lead, and when the driver of the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet crossed the finish line under caution, he claimed his long-awaited first victory in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
RELATED: Official Xfinity Series race results
What was a novel experience for Gragson was old hat to Earnhardt, who won at the 2.5-mile track for the seventh time as a car owner — with his seventh different driver. Five of Earnhardt’s victories have come in the season opener at the Birthplace of Speed, including the last three in a row.
Gragson recovered from an early pit road speeding penalty to take control of the race. His crew chief, Dave Elenz, won for the fourth time at Daytona with his fourth different driver.
“We were wide open all day and managed to control the group behind us really well,” said Gragson, who climbed the frontstretch fence to celebrate his maiden win. “My spotter, Earl Barban, did a great job. He led me to this victory. Very, very thankful to everybody at JR Motorsports, (engine supplier) Hendrick Motorsports for the great power and building this new chassis. Without everybody like that, it just wouldn’t be possible.
“Just trying to stay focused, stay positive when we threw it away on that speeding penalty after that first stage. But I’m so, so proud to be on this team. We stayed till 9:30 the night before we came down here working on the hauler. The team chemistry is better than it’s ever been. And I’m ready to go and do this deal some more.”
A strong push in the top lane from runner-up Harrison Burton propelled Gragson into the lead after the final restart on Lap 198 of 200. On the final lap, Gragson had pulled away from his pursuers by roughly two car lengths before Brandon Brown knocked Michael Annett’s Chevrolet sideways and started the wreck that ended the race under yellow.
The caution froze the finishing order, with Timmy Hill, Brandon Jones and Chase Briscoe running third, fourth and fifth, respectively. A 12-car wreck on Lap 114 that eliminated the contending cars of Jeb Burton and Austin Cindric set up the three-lap dash to the finish.
Previous multi-car crashes had KO’d Justin Allgaier and first-time pole winner Myatt Snider. Jeb Burton (26 laps), Allgaier (23) and Snider (22) combined to lead 71 circuits, but none of the three was running at the finish of the race.
Harrison Burton thought he had an excellent shot at the victory before the wreck and caution on the final lap.
“Noah got out front about a car-and-a-half, and I thought ‘He might be in trouble here,’ but then the caution came out,” Burton said. “Just really proud of our guys. We had a tough day. I think that there were a couple times in the race that we were down and out, and our guys clawed it out. I was proud of that effort.”
Briscoe had grabbed the lead from Gragson before the wreck on Lap 114 but couldn’t hold it after the final restart.
“That one is going to sting for a while for sure,” Briscoe said. “I feel like we were making more moves than anybody and I thought I was going to have a really good shot there at the end. I don’t know what was up with the 19, he couldn’t give me any help on the bottom.
“It was just one of those where you wish you would have picked the top. We went on the bottom because at the time it felt like the right decision.”
Justin Haley, Brandon Brown, Ray Black Jr., Ryan Sieg and Alex Labbe completed the top 10.