DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Say this for Noah Gragson’s third-place finish in Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series season opener: He at least made it interesting.
Gragson was among the first to step out of the drafting line in Saturday’s Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner. 300 at Daytona International Speedway, a move that ultimately fizzled in the spiraling chaos of the final laps. Gragson’s No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet was third behind race winner Austin Hill and runner-up AJ Allmendinger when a caution flag for Myatt Snider’s severe crash ended the race half a lap from the scheduled distance.
After the engines had quieted, Gragson received a word of congratulations on pit road from team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., who also commended the spice he added to the contest for the win.
“He said you’re the only fun one to watch out there,” Gragson recalled. “The only one making moves.”
Gragson led twice for 12 of the 120 laps in the season-opening event, ending an eventful day with a top-five result. He recovered from a Stage 1 penalty for an uncontrolled tire on pit road, then bounced back after being shuffled out of the lead after Stage 2.
He sat third behind Allmendinger and Hill – in that order – before making his final move, one that briefly pulled him even with the top spot.
“I thought we were really close there,” said Gragson, who won the Xfinity opener here in 2020, but crashed out in last year’s lid-lifter. “Not really happy with just how the bottom line got together there at the end. The side-draft I felt like we stalled out, but we put ourselves in position and ran up front all day. Just came up a little short. I think we’re third but you know, we’ll take it to start the year. It’s better than being wrecked like last year.”
Gragson is set to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut with Beard Motorsports in Sunday’s Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM). But Saturday represented the launch of his fourth full-time season in the Xfinity Series, one with a new-look No. 9 JRM group under the leadership of crew chief Luke Lambert, who replaces the departed Dave Elenz.
The debut of that driver-crew chief pairing was an adventure-filled one, but one that checked off several of the team’s early goals.
“Honestly, I think everything really went according to plan,” Lambert told NASCAR.com. “Really proud of everybody on the team. The whole group executed well, we did all the things that we planned to do and put ourselves in position. Just the way it shook out there in the end, those last 10 laps, really five laps when everything started to transpire, the lane that we put ourselves in was the right move at the time, and it was the right spot to be in, but too many guys bailed on us and kept us from getting in the lead spot there. So you can’t control all that. But what we did and what we could control, everyone did a nice job of executing.
“I was really proud of him, and Tyler (Monn), his spotter, they worked really well together. Noah just, he just drove a phenomenal race, honestly. I mean, strategy-wise, everything was according to plan, and he just did all the executing that we needed on the race track to get us back up in front when we had to make that happen.”
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That happened in short order after the No. 9 team’s early pit-road setback. Gragson rallied to finish fifth at the end of Stage 1, and he was also in position to claim the win in Stage 2. That run to the green-checkered flag was stymied on the last lap after contact with pole-starter and defending Xfinity Series champion Daniel Hemric, whose No. 11 Kaulig Racing Chevy nudged Gragson’s car into a near-spin through Turns 1 and 2. Gragson bobbled but righted the car to avoid a potential crash.
Gragson and Hemric sparred at points during last year’s Xfinity Series campaign, and the two will be curious teammates for Kaulig’s Cup Series efforts this season. As for Saturday’s contact at the front of the pack, Gragson said he was filing it away.
“I’ll remember that. We’ll remember that,” Gragson said. “It was a good save, but I’ll remember how it happened and we’ll be all right.”
For Lambert, he carried two memorable takeaways from the near-wipeout – Gragson’s driving ability and how little the run-in rattled him.
“You know, frankly, he was unfazed,” Lambert said. “I talked to him after the race, and he goes, ‘What do you mean, was I sideways?’ and I said, ‘You were wrecked.’ So he’s a wheelman, and he has the ability to do things that maybe he doesn’t even comprehend that he’s doing, and that was an example of him just with phenomenal car control, and he was on to the next move and it didn’t faze him a bit.”