NASCAR’s Next Generation: A Q&A with Noah Gragson

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Not too long ago, Noah Gragson “didn’t respect” NASCAR.

For the obvious reasons.

“I thought it was just a bunch of guys going in left-hand circles,” Gragson told NBC Sports. “I didn’t think it was hard.”

Raised in Las Vegas, Gragson was an “extreme sports guy” who admired the likes of Travis Pastrana, taking up mountain biking, skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing. Now, the 18-year-old Gragson is trying to make a name for himself in NASCAR, just as Pastrana attempted in 2012 and 2013 in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series.

Noah Gragson poses next to his car with the trophy for winning the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race at Tucson Speedway on May 2, 2015 in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

His conversion began when his dad, Scott Gragson, took him to an indoor go-karting facility.

“I fell in love with it the first time out on the track,” said Noah Gragson, who go-karted for more than a year. At 13, an opportunity from a business partner of his dad’s led to test in a Bandolero car at the 3/8th-mile Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“I didn’t know if I was going to like it, what it was going to be like,” Gragson said. “The season started that Friday, it was my spring break, so we went out there on the Wednesday. It was a blast.

“I found what I wanted to do. I finished third in my first race, and man, I was hooked for life. My dad always calls it ‘the most expensive mistake he’s made.'”

That mistake has led to Gragson being named to the NASCAR Next program in just his fourth year of racing, his second in NASCAR. The “action sports guy” has three K&N series wins. While competing for Jefferson Pitts Racing, Gragson is the first driver to attempt to race full-time in both the East and West series.

In doing so, he has one win in the East series (at Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut). In the West, he has two runner-up results, including to former NASCAR Next member and Sprint Cup rookie Chase Elliott at Sonoma Raceway.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: What did you learn from driving against Chase Elliott at Sonoma that you can’t pick up from TV?

Gragson: I just learned that he’s really experienced. He’s been racing these stock cars for I don’t know how many years, but at least five, so he really knows the tires and how much falloff they’re going to have and he had a lot of experience there in the Cup car. I learned a little bit off him with his line and kind of what he was doing. He’s really smart. He played his cards right. It’s a 64-lap race and he was just sitting there riding, saving his tires for I’d say 80, 90 percent of it and we got some cautions there at the end and he was really good all weekend, but he had the most tire there at the end. I kind of burnt my stuff up a little bit.

NBC Sports: Looking at your Twitter profile, what does ‘some call me Nacho mean’?

Gragson: That’s my nickname, I got it in Spanish class in third grade … we had to come up with Spanish names and Nacho just stuck. I went to a surf camp that summer and everyone had nicknames there so that was Nacho there. I guess that just stuck. Every time I go down to the beach in California, everyone knows me as Nacho down there.

NBC Sports: What school did you go to if you were taking Spanish in third grade?

Gragson: I went to a private school here in Las Vegas near my house. I went there from third grade to sixth grade. In sixth grade, it wasn’t really working out where I was, I didn’t really like it. So I went to a boarding school called Army-Navy Academy in Carlsbad, California. I went there by choice (from seventh-eighth grade), it was really cool. I liked it a lot. It was right on the beach in California, I got to surf everyday. It was a military structured school, but it’s not like in the movies or anything like you’re thinking. We’re not doing push ups 24/7 and going to bed in school. It was a good deal for me, and I matured a lot there.

NBC Sports: You also call yourself an ‘amateur snow cone eater.’ What’s your favorite snow cone flavor?

Gragson: I’d have to go with blue raspberry, you cannot go wrong with blue raspberry on any kind of candy. There’s a really good snow cone place here in Las Vegas, I’m actually with my buddy right now and we’re going to go there later, it’s called The Frozen Frog. I’ll tell you the key to a good snow cone. The key to a good snow cone is the compound of ice, it’s got to be really, really fine. The place I go to in Las Vegas, it’s the real deal. It’ll have you hooked.

NBC Sports: Of the 55 accounts you follow on Twitter, which is your favorite?

Gragson: I like the guy named @nascarcasm. He’s pretty funny. He’s hilarious. I followed @TheOrangeCone, but he tweets way too much for me, so I had to mute him on there.

NBC Sports: If you were in a Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway, which song would you choose to be introduced with?

Gragson: Oh, we were talking about that actually today, me and my buddy. That’s so ironic. I would do “Friends in Low Places” (by Garth Brooks).

NBC Sports: You tweeted a few times this morning about the passing of Bryan Clauson. How well did you know him?

Gragson: I never met the guy, I don’t really know much about him. My teammate, Gracin Raz, he likes him a lot, Bryan Clauson, so I started becoming familiar with Bryan and just hearing Gracin talk about it. I realized he was doing a deal this year, a tour called “Chase to 200.” That’s 200 races in one year, which is insane, unreal. I’ve done 35 or 36 races this year and it feels like I’ve done a million, so he’s racing pretty much every night, or was I should say unfortunately. We’re all competing against each other on the race track, but when something happens like that we all come together. It’s definitely in our hearts and everyone is thinking about him. He’s in our prayers. It’s just an unfortunate deal. He’s a total wheelman, really good race car driver from what I’ve seen and never really seen anyone say a bad thing about him.

NBC Sports: Have you ever lost someone you knew in a racing accident?

Gragson: I haven’t lost anyone I know that races. But the guy who got me started in the Bandolero stuff, we rented out Bandolero from, he crew chiefed and everything, his name was Jim O’Hanley. It was February 2015 , he passed away. The news broke to me, I was racing down in Tucson, Arizona, for like my fourth Super Late Model start or whatnot, a pretty big race, like $10,000 to win. I was sitting up in the stands and I was on Snapchat. And a girl who races in Las Vegas Snapchatted me and said ‘Hey, did you hear that Jim O’Hanley passed away ?’and I was like ‘Oh, no.’ And it was right before my race, not even 20 minutes before my race. I just went into shock. I never really get emotional about that stuff. I was really close to Jim and he was a really good guy. He really got me my start in my racing career. Without him I wouldn’t be in the position I am right now.

Previous 2016 NASCAR Next Q&A’s

Ty Majeski

Kyle Busch to run five Truck races for KBM in 2023

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Kyle Busch Motorsports announced Wednesday the five Craftsman Truck Series team owner Kyle Busch will race this season.

Busch’s Truck races will be:

March 3 at Las Vegas

March 25 at Circuit of the Americas

April 14 at Martinsville

May 6 at Kansas

July 22 at Pocono

Busch is the winningest Truck Series driver with 62 career victories. He has won at least one series race in each of the last 10 seasons. He has won 37.6% of the Truck races he’s entered and placed either first or second in 56.7% of his 165 career series starts.

Zariz Transport, which specializes in transporting containers from ports, signed a multi-year deal to be the primary sponsor on Busch’s No. 51 truck for all of his series races, starting this season. The company will be an associate sponsor on the truck in the remaining 18 series races.

Myatt Snider to run six Xfinity races with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Myatt Snider is the latest driver to be announced as running a select number of Xfinity races in the No. 19 car for Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

Snider will run six races with the team. Ryan Truex (six races), Joe Graf Jr. (five) and Connor Mosack (three) also will be in JGR’s No. 19 Xfinity car this year.

Snider’s first race with the team will be the Feb. 18 season opener at Daytona. He also will race at Portland (June 3), Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7), Las Vegas (Oct. 14), Martinsville (Oct. 28) and the season finale at Phoenix (Nov. 4).

The deal returns Snider to JGR. He worked in various departments there from 2011-15.

“We’re looking forward to have Myatt on our No. 19 team for six races,” said Steve DeSouza, executive vice president of Xfinity and development. “Building out the driver lineup for this car is an opportunity for JGR to help drivers continue to develop in their racing career, and we’re looking forward to seeing how Myatt continues to grow.”

Said Snider in a statement from the team: “With six races on our 2023 schedule, I’m looking forward to climbing into the No. 19 TreeTop Toyota GR Supra with Joe Gibbs Racing this year. Having worked with JGR as a high schooler and a young racer, it’s an awesome full circle moment to return as a driver to the team that taught me so much about racing itself.

“It’s good to be reunited with (crew chief) Jason Ratcliff as we have an awesome history working together. With many memories and wins from 2013 and 2014 when I worked on the No. 20 Toyota Camry under Jason’s leadership, the team has always been more of a family relationship to me. I’m glad to be returning to the JGR family and looking forward to continuing to learn and grow as a driver.”

Daytona will be Snider’s 100th career Xfinity start. He has one series win and 21 top 10s. He was the rookie of the year in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2018.

Tree Top will be Snider’s sponsor for his six races with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Also in the Xfinity Series, Gray Gaulding, who will run full season with SS Green Light Racing, announced that he’ll have sponsor Panini America for multiple races, including the Daytona opener. Emerling-Gase Motorsports announced that Natalie Decker will run a part-time schedule in both the ARCA Menards Series and Xfinity Series for the team.

 

Travis Pastrana ‘taking a chance’ at Daytona

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In so-called “action” sports, Travis Pastrana is a king. He is well-known across the spectrum of motorsports that are a bit on the edge — the X Games, Gymkhana, motorcross and rally racing.

Now he’s jumping in the deep end, attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500 and what would be his first NASCAR Cup Series start.

Pastrana, who is entered in the 500 in a third Toyota fielded by 23XI Racing, will be one of at least six drivers vying for the four non-charter starting spots in the race. Also on that list: Jimmie Johnson, Conor Daly, Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Austin Hill.

MORE: IndyCar driver Conor Daly entered in Daytona 500

Clearly, just getting a spot on the 500 starting grid won’t be easy.

“I love a challenge,” Pastrana told NBC Sports. “I’ve wanted to be a part of the Great American Race since I started watching it on TV as a kid. Most drivers and athletes, when they get to the top of a sport, don’t take a chance to try something else. I like to push myself. If I feel I’m the favorite in something, I lose a little interest and focus. Yes, I’m in way over my head, but I believe I can do it safely. At the end of the day, my most fun time is when I’m battling and battling with the best.”

Although Pastrana, 39, hasn’t raced in the Cup Series, he’s not a stranger to NASCAR. He has run 42 Xfinity races, driving the full series for Roush Fenway Racing in 2013 (winning a pole and scoring four top-10 finishes), and five Craftsman Truck races.

“All those are awesome memories,” Pastrana said. “In my first race at Richmond (in 2012), Denny Hamlin really helped me out. I pulled on the track in practice, and he waited for me to get up to speed. He basically ruined his practice helping me get up to speed. Joey Logano jumped in my car at New Hampshire and did a couple of laps and changed the car, and I went from 28th to 13th the next lap. I had so many people who really reached out and helped me get the experience I needed.”

Pastrana was fast, but he had issues adapting to the NASCAR experience and the rhythm of races.

“It was extremely difficult for me not growing up in NASCAR,” he said. “I come from motocross, where there’s a shorter duration. It’s everything or nothing. You make time by taking chances. In pavement racing, it’s about rear-wheel drive. You can’t carry your car. In NASCAR it’s not about taking chances. It’s about homework. It’s about team. It’s about understanding where you can go fast and be spot on your mark for three hours straight.”

MORE: Will Clash issues carry over into rest of season?

Pastrana said he didn’t venture into NASCAR with the idea of transferring his skills to stock car racing full time.

“It was all about me trying to get to the Daytona 500,” he said. “Then I looked around, when I was in the K&N Series, and saw kids like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. They were teenagers, and they already were as good or better than me.”

Now he hopes to be in the mix with Elliott, Larson and the rest of the field when the green flag falls on the 500.

He will get in some bonus laps driving for Niece Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona.

“For the first time, my main goal, other than qualifying for the 500, isn’t about winning,” Pastrana said. “We’ll take a win, of course, but my main goal is to finish on the lead lap and not cause any issues. I know we’ll have a strong car from 23XI, so the only way I can mess this up is to be the cause of a crash.

“I’d just love to go out and be a part of the Great American Race.”

 

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”