Lambert, Gragson both ready for next big step in racing, but first they battle for Xfinity title

Noah Gragson and crew chief Luke Lambert talk on pit road.
Logan Riely
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From the ripe young age of 8, Luke Lambert knew what his future held: Racing.

This weekend, his destiny could be fulfilled, serving as crew chief for Noah Gragson and the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet as the duo battles for the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship at Phoenix Raceway Saturday ( 6 p.m. ET, USA Network, NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM).

RELATED: Full Phoenix schedule | Xfinity standings

Between 8-year-old Luke and this weekend in Phoenix, it’s been quite the journey:

Lambert, who raced when he was younger, graduated from North Carolina State University in 2005 with a mechanical engineering background, and he competed on the school’s Formula SAE team.

Lambert landed a job as an engineer out of college at Richard Childress Racing. After six years of working with RCR, he replaced Todd Berrier as Jeff Burton’s crew chief midway through the 2011 season.

The following year, he became the full-time crew chief for Elliott Sadler in his final year at RCR in the Xfinity Series. Lambert returned to crew chief Burton in 2013 in his final Cup campaign at RCR. Once Ryan Newman came over in 2014, Lambert led the way for the No. 31 team for the next five years — picking up his lone Cup win in 2017 at Phoenix — and stayed with Daniel Hemric in 2019.

“The Cup Series is tough,” Lambert said. “It’s a challenging series. You have all the best guys in it and it’s a grind.”

For the last two years, Lambert moved over to Roush Fenway Racing to work with Chris Buescher. But when the team rebranded to RFK Racing, Lambert had some soul searching to do. He wanted to compete for championships.

Last December, he met Noah Gragson for the first time for lunch at Field of Greens in Mooresville, North Carolina. Instantly, there was chemistry, though Gragson said he had no say in who would be his next crew chief at JRM, with Dave Elenz leaving for Petty GMS Motorsports in the Cup Series.

Gragson was nervous about a future without Elenz.

“I just saw a lot of the things that Noah, JRM and Dave had done together and saw a continuous progression of improvement and potential every week,” Lambert said. “I felt like the work wasn’t done with where he was heading and he’s continuing to put that work in.”

The duo had success right out of the gates in 2022, though Gragson didn’t find Victory Lane until the fourth race of the season at Phoenix. Those first four races all resulted in podium finishes.

“Have you ever met someone and be like, ‘Damn, how did we not know each other?'” Gragson said of their early success. “Like in ‘Step Brothers,’ doing the same thing, building bunk beds and stuff, that’s how I see Luke and I. ‘Did we just become best friends?’ It happened so quick and easy. We tried to spend time with each other, but it wasn’t forced.”

Away from the track, the pairing is arguably closer than they are at the track. When the Lamberts want a night to themselves, sometimes they’ll call on Gragson to watch their kids: Waylon, 10; Cade, 9; RubyLynn, 6.

Gragson enjoys hanging out with the children, acting as an older brother.

“They’re just cool kids,” he said. “They seem like they’re family to me.”

Gragson has taken the Lambert children to dinner and North Wilkesboro to watch a race, while also riding dirt bikes with them.

“He’s a part of our family,” Lambert said of Gragson. “It’s good for all of us and makes the working relationship that much more successful at times. We get along and have a lot of the same interests and try to enjoy whatever we end up doing.”

At the track, the No. 9 team has found camaraderie. Gragson has won a series-high eight races (he’d won five races in his first three seasons combined) and picked up 20 top-five finishes with an average finish of 8.3.

Some of the success can certainly be put on the shoulders of the addition of Lambert. Gragson has also matured throughout the season and become the championship favorite entering this weekend.

Gragson and Lambert are having such success that Lambert will make the move back to the Cup Series in 2023 to crew chief Gragson at Petty GMS. Lambert is ready to tackle the Cup Series once again.

“[Petty GMS] asked who I wanted to be the crew chief and they could give us the option,” Gragson stated. “I was like, ‘I’d like to keep this together if I can.’

“I was nervous because I didn’t want to move up to the new car with a new guy and trying to learn a new guy and new car together.”

Lambert is excited to learn a new craft in the Next Gen car. He was waiting for an opportunity similar to this, though appreciative of his one season at JRM.

“What’s important to me in my job in racing is to be with a team that is successful and to work in a situation where we have an opportunity to compete and contend for wins and championships,” he said. “The relationship that we’ve forged during this time racing together makes it more clear to me that’s where I want to continue and work towards.”

Before departing JRM, Gragson and Lambert have one mission left, winning the Xfinity Series championship. It would be the ultimate payoff for the team that’s been most dominant in the series in 2022.

“It’s certainly a lifelong goal of mine,” Lambert said. “I’ve been able to finish second in the Xfinity Series championship and I’ve been able to finish second as a crew chief in the Cup Series championship. The opportunity to close it out is something that is really important to me.”