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Xfinity Spotlight: Noah Gragson on impressive Xfinity debut, being Dale Jr. ‘fanboy’

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Noah Gragson admits he was a bit full of himself when he made his Camping World Truck Series debut in 2016 at ISM Raceway.

“I won a couple of K&N races, I thought I was going to be one of the top dogs and be competing for the win and that just didn’t happen,” Gragson told NBC Sports of the race where he started 14th and finished 16th.

Things started better for the 19-year-old driver in the Xfinity Series. The Las Vegas native, who competes full-time in the Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports, made his debut last weekend at Richmond Raceway with Joe Gibbs Racing.

As part of a three-race deal, which continues this weekend at Talladega, Gragson started 11th, led 10 laps and fought teammate Christopher Bell for the win before placing second.

“I told myself before this weekend, I said, ‘Listen, these guys are good, you’re stepping up a level,'” Gragson said. “I just tried to remind myself that, ‘Yeah, I’m not the top dog. I’m going to get my ass stomped out here.’ That’s how I felt. I felt it was going to be a rude awakening. It wasn’t. I don’t know what was different, but I just felt a lot more comfortable. … I just felt like it came to me a little bit more. I was on my game.”

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

Noah Gragson celebrates his first Truck win at Martinsville in 2017. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: When I last interviewed you two years ago, I asked how you viewed NASCAR growing up. You said you “didn’t respect” it because you “didn’t think it was hard.” Now that you’re more than a few years into your career, how hard is it? How easy is it compared to what you thought it would be?

Gragson: Like I said a couple of years ago, I thought NASCAR was just driving in circles, and not in a disrespectful way. I didn’t know, I wasn’t educated on the sport. It’s just what I figured. You never know until you try it. … Being in it now, understanding everything that goes into it, I didn’t know there was this much preparation that goes into a weekend. That’s what I’ve been really trying to focus on this last year, I’ve been trying to change up the way I prepare before I go the race track. Just being on top of it and not having to ask questions and already knowing the answer to those questions is the biggest thing I feel like. With enough preparation and the right preparation, you won’t have to ask any questions when you get to the race track. … It’s a lot tougher Monday through Friday than I ever figured it would be.

NBC SportsIf you could have picked any three tracks to get your Xfinity start at, would these (Richmond, Talladega, Dover) have been those tracks?

Gragson: Talladega I can assure you wouldn’t be. I’m still a little timid, a little nervous about going to Talladega. Richmond I really liked. I think I had a good idea that I would run somewhat decent just at Richmond. I really like that track, just on video games. I was hoping it would kind of translate to real life and I think it did. If I could build a top-three schedule, probably Richmond, Iowa and maybe like a road course. I also like Dover quite a bit. I feel like I run really good there on “NASCAR: Inside Line” in a Cup car on Xbox. Hopefully it’ll translate to real life.

NBC Sports: With the resources you have at Joe Gibbs Racing and Kyle Busch Motorsports who have you been talking to the most about what to expect this weekend at Talladega?

Gragson: I haven’t really talked to anybody pretty much yet. I was going to talk to Kyle Busch maybe a little bit. He hasn’t run the Xfinity cars in a while, so I might talk to him just about some small stuff, but also probably Joey Logano. I’m working with his management team, Clutch Studios and Clutch Management. They’ve been a help to me. Joey helped me a little bit before Richmond along with Kyle Busch. I would talk to those two guys and then Eric Phillips, my crew chief and what not, try to get a game plan before we go.

NBC Sports: In your pre-race interview at Richmond you said you were more nervous than the first time you leaned in to kiss a girl. Did you wake up with that feeling Friday or did it creep in over the course of the day?

Gragson: I think it just creeped in over the course of the day and then you walk over to driver intros and everything is going off and then it hits you when you’re walking back to you car and you’re like, ‘Damn. This is real. I’m going to be making my first Xfinity start. This is a pretty cool deal, this is a big opportunity.’ You’re standing there and you’ve got everybody around you. A lot more than a truck race for sure. Just all that hype and that pressure comes together and like I said, yeah, it hits you and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is big. I better go make something happen here.”

Noah Gragson drive his No. 18 Toyota in the Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: Who did you learn the most from just by racing around them over the course of the night?

Gragson: Probably Tyler Reddick. In practice I was following him. I wasn’t getting frustrated, but I was kind of at a road block where I just didn’t know where I needed to be on the race track and I went up behind him in practice and I followed him and I changed up my line a little bit closer to what he was doing and boom, I picked up a couple of tenths and we were back on pace. … I don’t think anybody knows that, but that’s probably the thing that helped me the most.

NBC Sports: Has anyone delivered you ice cream via Twitter lately?

Gragson: Breyers did. Breyers sent me some, which was really cool. … They sent me vanilla, a couple things of vanilla ice cream. Which was super cool. They saw my tweet and they said ‘We’ll get on it’ and they sent me some, which I didn’t actually think they were actually going to do, but I got a package. I was all fired up. I love some ice cream.

NBC Sports: What’s the coolest thing that’s happened to you because of social media?

Gragson: Probably getting followed by Dale Jr. After that whole wasabi deal last year. So I did that and he liked the tweet and retweeted it and he followed me and I was a total fanboy. … When he followed me I was losing it. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Dale Jr. just followed me.’ It was so awesome, so I took a screenshot. Just getting those guys to follow me is really, really cool.

NBC Sports: Which social media platform is your favorite?

Gragson: Probably Tinder. No, I’m just kidding. I’m kidding, I’m kidding, I’m kidding. JK on that one. I like Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. Probably Instagram, then Twitter and Snapchat.

NBC Sports: Why that order?

Gragson: Snapchat use to be my favorite but it’s trash now. They messed up the whole story deal. You’d be better off trying to find a Wama on (video game) “Fortnite” than finding a story on Snapchat. … It’s really, really tough to navigate Snapchat now and I really do not enjoy it. I feel like it’s taken away a lot of my viewership, their new update.

(Writer’s Note: Earlier in the interview Gragson discussed his schedule for the week, which involved mailing merchandise purchased by fans).

NBC Sports: You talked about your new merchandise and selling it. Are your merchandise sells your primary way of measuring how large your fan base is? If not, what is?

Gragson: Probably the amount of likes I get on Instagram helps me kind of gauge. I really pay attention to the insights and data, the numbers and what not to my posts. I feel like with Instagram they have a really good way for people to see what their engagement is and other insights. I really pay a good amount of attention to that. I kind of notice when some posts get viewed more than others. Just the timing of it and what not. That’s really the biggest thing.

NBC Sports: At any point does it feel like social media is too controlling of your life, too overwhelming?

Gragson: No, I don’t feel that way. Some might not agree. It’s not bad.

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Friday’s schedule for Kansas Speedway

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NASCAR’s race weekend at Kansas Speedway begins today with Cup qualifying and practice sessions for Cup and Xfinity.

Here’s the day’s full schedule with TV and radio info:

(All times are Eastern)

11 a.m. – 9 p.m. – Cup garage open

Noon – 8 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

2:05 – 2:55 p.m. – Cup practice (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network)

3:05 – 3:55 p.m. – Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

5 – 5:50 – Final Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

7:10 p.m. – Cup qualifying; multi-car/three rounds (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Friday 5: Kansas could be start of dominant run for Big 3

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — The opening half of the playoffs, with its Roval and other schedule changes, saw five different winners but such parity may be replaced beginning this weekend at Kansas Speedway.

Three of the season’s final five races will be at 1.5-mile tracks — Kansas, Texas and Homestead. Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch have dominated this season on the 1.5-mile tracks.

Consider what they’ve done this year on such tracks:

Atlanta — Harvick won, leading 181 of 325 laps; Truex was fifth.

Las Vegas — Harvick won, leading 214 of 267 laps; Busch was second and Truex was fourth.

Texas — Busch won, leading 116 of 334 laps; Harvick was second.

Kansas — Harvick won, leading 79 of 267 laps; Truex was second 

Coca-Cola 600 — Busch won, leading 377 of 400 laps; Truex was second.

Chicago — Busch won, leading 59 of 267 laps; Harvick was third and Truex was fourth.

Kentucky — Truex won, leading 174 of 267 laps; Busch was fourth and Harvick was fifth.

Las Vegas — Brad Keselowski won; Truex was third, leading 96 of 272 laps.

Also consider that Harvick, Busch and Truex combined to win 12 of the 17 stages at those tracks and one can see how difficult it could be for other drivers if this trend continues.

Keselowski (-18 points), Ryan Blaney (-22), Kyle Larson (-26 with his team appealing his Talladega penalty) and Alex Bowman (-68) enter this weekend’s race below the cutoff line. Bowman must win or he’ll be eliminated. Larson, Blaney and Keselowski will need to win or hope others have problems to advance. Scoring a victory won’t be easy against Harvick, Busch and Truex, who have combined to win the last five Kansas races.

Don’t be surprised if the Big 3 dominate the second half of the playoffs.

2. The value of playoff points

Martin Truex Jr. enters Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET on NBC) in the last transfer spot.

He holds that position because of the 38 playoff points he’s accumulated this season. His advantage would be much less without having scored so many playoff points.

Brad Keselowski trails Truex by 18 points for that transfer spot. Keselowski has scored 13 fewer playoff points than Truex.

Ryan Blaney trails Truex by 22 points. Blaney has scored 25 fewer playoff points than Truex.

All the points matter throughout the season.

3. Kind words about Kyle Busch from a competitor

At a media event Thursday to promote the upcoming Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, Kevin Harvick was asked about competing against Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.

“I love racing against Kyle Busch,” Harvick said. “I think Kyle is one of the best drivers that is ever going to come through this sport. The things that he does in the car are great, but he knows a lot about the car, too.

“And Martin (Truex Jr.) and those guys have run well over the last few years, so racing with those two teams, we’ve been around each other in the garage a lot. There’s a lot of respect amongst the three teams, but we all want to beat each other.”

4. What’s at stake …

Jimmie Johnson has five races left to score a victory this season and continue his streak of seasons with at least one win.

He’s gone 16 seasons with at least one victory, tying him with Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace for third on the all-time list.

Richard Petty holds the record at 18 consecutive seasons with at least one victory. David Pearson had at least a victory in 17 consecutive seasons.

5. How much does testing matter?

Kansas was one of three tracks NASCAR held organizational tests this season, allowing one car per organization to test.

In the previous two organizational tests this season (Las Vegas and Richmond), the winner did not test.

Kyle Larson was the fastest both days of the Las Vegas test on Jan. 31-Feb. 1. He finished third, highest among those who tested.

Kevin Harvick took part in the organizational test at Richmond on Aug. 27-28. He went on to finish second, highest among those who tested.

The organizational test at Kansas Speedway was Sept. 24-25. Here’s who tested:

Playoff drivers: Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr.

Drivers eliminated or didn’t make playoffs: Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher, Cole Custer, Ty Dillon, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard.

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Dale Jr. Download: Talladega’s wild weekends

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A mostly uneventful race at Talladega last week turned wild in Turn 1 of the white-flag lap. A multi-car crash might have ended the race if not for the fact that NASCAR judged all the drivers in the accident were safe. Some drivers – notably Kurt Busch, who ran out of gas in Turn 4 of that same lap – were not happy.

But NASCAR was in a no-win situation.

“If NASCAR throws the yellow, they’re going to get criticized for not letting it play out; if NASCAR doesn’t throw they yellow, they’re going to get criticized for not throwing the yellow,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said on this week’s edition of the Dale Jr. Download.

Earnhardt then recalled some other controversial calls when NASCAR threw the caution to this disapproval of the fans.

In April 2004, Jeff Gordon beat Earnhardt when the field was frozen due to a yellow flag. Afterward, irate fans hurled cans of beer at Gordon’s car.

“Jeff had just gotten up toward the front,” Earnhardt said. “And we’d been doing well all day long – and this would have been five in a row. So down the back straightaway going into [Turn] 3, Jeff side-drafted me and got ahead and I was side drafting him back and was starting to go back by him. And that motion as I’m starting to go back by him … another couple of hundred yards and I’d be back out front. And the 25 car [Brian Vickers] spun in the middle of the corner. NASCAR’s precedent at the time was the field was froze as soon as the car started to spin.”

Earnhardt was frustrated that Gordon, who had led significantly fewer laps in the race, was going to win.

We’re riding around and those beer cans are flying across the racetrack,” Earnhardt continued. “I got up against the wall behind the fence so I’m not getting many beer cans. Jeff goes further and further down toward the apron. … They were like throwing full beer cans. Now you know you’ve got some pissed off Alabama fans when they’re willing to throw a full can of beer.”

For more, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter

NASCAR America: Aric Almirola replaces grim Kansas memories with fond ones

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The 2017 crash in the spring Kansas Speedway that seriously injured Aric Almirola and kept him from competing in seven races that season continues to define his career.

“Breaking my back was obviously not in the plan,” Almirola said in an interview on NASCAR America. “I didn’t anticipate ever being injured in a racecar. Everybody always thinks, ‘that’s not going to happen to me.’ ”

But it did and each time Almirola returns to Kansas – like he will Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC) – he is met with memories of the accident that will not go away. That’s because his crash continues to be part of the highlight reel for this track as one of its most dramatic moments.

As it turns out, his thoughts about the track have become fond ones.

Later in 2017, Almirola finished ninth in the fall Kansas race after finishing fifth the week before at Talladega. He finished ninth again this spring.

“Something that really stuck out to me there is how his perception has changed,” Parker Kligerman said on Thursday’s edition of NASCAR America. “Sometimes you have drivers who ascend to the top very quickly and they don’t have, maybe, a respect for what they’re doing and what they’re getting to do week in and week out. And when they’re … forced to watch the sport from another angle and … just observe, a lot of time they come away being faster, better, more appreciative.”

This week, Almirola goes to the track with an even better feeling after winning last week’s race at Talladega.

For more, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter