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May 2, 2024

Noah Gragson enjoying fruits of labor at Stewart-Haas: ‘I don’t know if we’ve fully seen our potential yet’

CONCORD, N.C. — At this point a season ago, Noah Gragson ranked 32nd in the NASCAR Cup Series points standings 11 races into his rookie campaign. The most flattering result was a 12th-place finish at Atlanta, marking one of two top-20 finishes he scored in that span.

What a difference a year makes.

Racing for a new team at Stewart-Haas Racing, some eight and a half months removed from an indefinite suspension while racing for Legacy Motor Club, Gragson has seemingly come into his own in 2024 as a Cup Series driver. What was a 27.6 average finish in his first 11 races of 2023 has vaulted tremendously in 2024, with a 17.3 average finish through the same stretch this season.

“I don’t know if we’ve fully seen our potential yet,” Gragson said Tuesday during a media availability, “because I’ve been taking steps as a driver each and every week on my preparation and whatnot that I don’t feel like I’m anywhere close to where I could be, just based off — if these steps can keep on going my whole career, it’d been pretty cool. And that’s what we’re trying to work for.”

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Gragson’s return slotted him into the No. 10 Ford at SHR with crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, departing from the Chevrolet ties Gragson held since joining JR Motorsports in the NASCAR Xfinity Series back in 2019. With that move came an exit from Josh Wise’s program with Chevrolet drivers, a company called Wise Optimization that, at its roots, helps drivers sharpen their approaches and abilities to become better, more efficient race car drivers.

Gragson found incredible use of the program when he was part of it — but says he discovered since leaving that he almost relied upon it too much.

“I didn’t have a process at all before Josh’s and then kind of developed a process at JRM and utilizing Josh,” Gragson said. “But definitely, you have your hand held a lot through that just because you’re never having to go through the SMT data and pull up restart clips and look at all this data. It’s just presented to you. So it’s really good when you’re in it because, like, man, I could utilize all this stuff, and this is what I need to look forward to. But now, not having it, it’s like, ‘oh man, I don’t know where to start.'”

Enter Blickensderfer, now in his 16th year as a crew chief at the Cup level. Once Blickensderfer got word Gragson would be his next driver, the two-time Daytona 500 winner wasted no time in arranging a meeting to get to know his 25-year-old driver better.

“I think all of us thought Noah had great talent to drive race cars,” Blickensderfer said in a Wednesday teleconference. “He showed it in Xfinity. It didn’t work out for him last year driving Cup cars. Why was that? What can we do better? So after a few weeks into the season, we started getting into routines to where we prepare for the weekend together. His backpack, his laptop are on the table right next to me right there. He’ll probably be walking in in a little bit. We’re going to the Ford simulator here in about half an hour. So just things to prepare ourselves.

“Noah’s talent level is extremely high driving race cars on Sunday. Figuring out what line he needs to run, figuring out how to make passes, where to put his car, things like that. The things we had to work on were how to unload to where he was comfortable, could get up to speed quickly, and then qualify better.”

Noah Gragson climbs from his car after finishing third in a NASCAR Cup Series race at Talladega.
Brittany Wilbur |

That came to fruition last weekend at Dover Motor Speedway, where their goals were to qualify and finish inside the top 15. Instead, Gragson qualified fifth and finished sixth, marking his fourth top-10 finish of 2024 already and second in a row after a career-best finish of third at Talladega Superspeedway. For Gragson, it all circles back to prep work.

“I’ve been making a lot of steps with the help of Drew,” he said. “Just personally, as a driver, I’ve been making steps of growth over the past — just this year. Week in and week out, it seems like I learn something new, where I maybe hadn’t taken those steps through Xfinity and my Cup career where it’s like, ‘oh man, I could be a valuable resource.’ I look at the simulation and being able to add changes. I’m not the best at describing it, but the 1% that I have learned over the past couple of weeks, I can look at whatever that graph is and say, ‘hey, I need it to be a little different here,’ where I’ve never seen that. So just learning new things, perfecting my process.”

While this stage of Gragson’s career brings immense change, Blickensderfer’s isn’t too dissimilar. “It’s changed tremendously,” the 47-year-old Illinois native said. He’s spent the majority of his career working with experienced Cup veterans — NASCAR Hall of Famer Matt Kenseth, Hall nominee Jeff Burton, 2021 Daytona 500 champion Michael McDowell and, most recently, longtime veteran Aric Almirola. The last time Blickensderfer worked with a driver this inexperienced relative to the field was in 2018, when a 24-year-old Bubba Wallace took over the No. 43 car at what was then called Richard Petty Motorsports.

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That’s where the benefit of face time with Gragson has paid its most dividends.

“What I learned early was that Noah was willing to do that work. He just didn’t know where to look for that, and we had to kind of spoon-feed that to him,” Blickensderfer said. “Noah and I have had tough conversations. We’ve had good conversations about it. I’ve enjoyed the process of figuring out what it was going to take for Noah to be better prepared, for Noah to perform versus another guy, right? My challenge as leader of the 10 team is to determine what’s going to get the best result on Sunday. Well, maybe us getting the best result is me spending more one-on-one time with Noah and a little less time on the setup plate with the guys down there.”

There has also been significant collaboration with his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates, most notably Chase Briscoe and crew chief Richard Boswell of the No. 14 Ford. Realizing he was behind as he entered the season, Gragson “felt like I needed to take the initiative” and build a connection with his new teammate, formerly a rival in the Xfinity Series.

“Chase and I communicate pretty close to the same on the cars and our setups are close to the same,” Gragson said. “So I was like, ‘Hey, man, we got to figure it out. Would you be willing to prepare with me?’ And so we started doing that and now Josh (Berry, driver of the No. 4 SHR Ford) jumped on board, and it just helps us have an open dialogue and communication. They’ll say something and I’ll be like, ‘man, I didn’t think of that.’ So just having an open-minded conversation and being able to learn from those guys, what they say and we just are all helping each other out.”

Chase Briscoe and Noah Gragson stand together on pit road at Phoenix Raceway.
Meg Oliphant | Getty Images

Blickensderfer recalled Briscoe’s similar struggles upon entry to the Cup level and noted Briscoe’s quick friendship with Gragson, who will look to complete his first full-time season at the Cup level this year. This season, the two pairs of drivers and crew chiefs meet every Tuesday to ensure the right paths are taken.

“We have the ability to give them a ton of information and kind of overload them,” Blickensderfer said. “So we are able to sit down with that information and say, ‘you guys don’t have to read 28 pages of data every single week and try to memorize it. What’s important to you?’ And in those talks, we were able to tell them what we thought was important for us. … I think with Chase and with Noah, it wasn’t so much about how to drive the race car on Sunday. It was, this is what the fast guy was doing in practice when the speed was up. What was going on in practice when the speed is up and then going into qualifying? These … are the things you need to do. So we have lunch on Tuesdays together, work through all of that stuff, and we’re able to communicate and we’re able to see things.”

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The No. 10 team is especially optimistic with the AdventHealth 400 at Kansas Speedway ahead on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Gragson picked up a sixth-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, another 1.5-mile oval, back in March, giving the 25-year-old Vegas native the confidence he needs at intermediate tracks.

“I’m super pumped up for these next handful of weeks because I’ve been calling it like mile-and-a-half season,” Gragson said. “We got Kansas, and then Darlington’s a faster track where you can move around. You got the Coke 600. And so I’m really excited for the month of May.”