Friday 5: In a moment of confusion, a chance for clarity

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Noah Gragson tried to detail his gut-wrenching loss last weekend at Texas, but the words came out in uneven bursts. Pain filled the pauses. Faraway glances searched for a different ending.

In position to win and secure a spot in the Xfinity championship round at Phoenix, Gragson saw it all disappear when Harrison Burton passed him on the final corner of the final lap to take the victory.

Gragson’s NBCSN interview afterward was a combination of a driver’s default setting to thank their sponsors and a driver trying to comprehend what just happened with an accidental expletive slipping out. Justin Allgaier, who had been eliminated by a crash, saw the interview and knew he needed to reach out to his JR Motorsports teammate.

But what would he say?

And would Gragson listen?

While their relationship has improved, there have been times when it has been complicated by actions on the track. They made contact in the final laps at Bristol in June while racing for the lead. Allgaier crashed. Gragson won. Allgaier later said they would remain friends but “it might take a while to get back on good terms.”

As Allgaier searched for Gragson at Texas last weekend, he pondered how to approach his teammate after such a loss. When Allgaier found Gragson alone near the garage, Allgaier stood in front of Gragson, put his hand on Gragson’s shoulder and asked how he was doing.

“I said, ‘Listen, you’re going to lose a lot more races than you’re ever going to win,’ ’’ Allgaier told NBC Sports of the extended conversation he had with Gragson. “If the scenario was different and Harrison passed you with five to go or 10 to go, would you have been as upset as you are right now? All it takes is circumstances to have something happen like what did. I said the difference for you is going to be today is today and you’ve still got an opportunity to go to Martinsville and have a good day and obviously still make the playoffs.’

“He’s got to win to to be in, but he’s got a shot to going and making the (title race). I said I wished in the moment that I had had somebody have a conversation with me because I’ve let stuff like that kind of fester and not be able to necessarily get over it.

“I think that was the biggest reason I wanted to catch him before he really had a chance to go talk to anybody else.”

Justin Allgaier and Noah Gragson talk after Gragson was passed for the win by Harrison Burton on the last corner of the last lap in the Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway. (Photo: JR Motorsports)

While Allgaier’s actions are noble, NASCAR is unique in that teammates compete against each other. Allgaier and Gragson both will race Saturday at Martinsville (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC) for the three remaining spots in the championship race. It is possible that one’s finish could keep the other out of the title race.

So, why didn’t Allgaier just have a short conversation and let Gragson figure it out for himself? If it affects him for the next race, then so be it. They’re competing for the chance to race for a championship.

“This sport has always been and will always be about people,” Allgaier said. “Whether it’s a teammate or not even a teammate. I’ve had other competitors that I’ve helped in the last two or three years that have turned around and beat me with some of the information I’ve told them. Chase Briscoe is a great example of that.

“Chase and I have had a lot of conversations. I remember a conversation we had at Indy two years ago … and he’s taken some of the stuff I’ve told him and he’s beat me with it. You know what? I’m OK with that.

“I’ve had people help me in my career. When it’s all said and done, you can help somebody with something. That doesn’t mean that they can always go out and beat you with it. … I think from my standpoint it’s always about people. Whether Noah was a teammate or not, (he was) somebody who was in that moment and you could see the physical pain that they’re going through. To me, it’s a no-brainer to go help them. That’s just who I was raised to be and who I am. I don’t plan on changing that anytime in the near future.”

The conversation continued between Allgaier and Gragson after they walked away at Texas. They texted back and forth.

“Man, I’ll be honest with you,” Allgaier said he wrote in a text to Gragson. “I struggled to come up and say something. … I didn’t want it to come off as me gloating over top of you or telling you that you were wrong. I was truly genuine in what I said.’

“That goes even further to our challenges that Noah and I have had in our teammate career. I think that a lot of what caused our challenges amongst the two of us was I don’t think he necessarily always understood where I was coming from. I think there was always this question of like ‘Is he trying to help me or is he not trying to help me?’ I think there were some people in Noah’s life that were probably telling him he needed to go, he’s talked about it, about being selfish, and go and do his own thing.

“That’s fine. If that’s what works for him, that’s awesome. Go do it. But I also wanted him to see the other side of it, too. You can have teammates, and you can be a team player and still go out and run good and have wins and do all those things that you need to go do. … At the end of the day, they always say, treat people like you want to be treated. That’s kind of how I’ve been.”

Allgaier also hopes that Gragson can someday help a teammate or another competitor after a devastating finish.

“I told him, I said, ‘Listen this may not help you for (this) weekend at Martinsville,” Allgaier said. “It may not help you for Phoenix. It may not help you for the next five years.’ But he’s plenty talented enough and he knows he’s talented enough that at some point in his life … there’s going to be something that came out of this past weekend that’s going to help him get through something else that happens to him somehow in his racing career.

“I hope that when it does, that conversation creeps back into his memory. On the other side of that, I hope he takes the information I gave him and he can impart that on to somebody else.”

2. Staying power

Kyle Busch’s struggles this season have raised the question of if changes could be made to the No. 18 team after this season.

Just like any sport when a team underperforms, the coach — or the crew chief in this case — is among those looked at first.

Sunday’s win, though, showed what Busch, crew chief Adam Stevens and the No. 18 team can do. So the question becomes do changes still need to be made?

Stevens and Busch are among the top duos in the sport. They’ve won 14.2% of their races together since they partnered in Cup in 2015. That’s the same winning percentage for crew chief Rodney Childers and Kevin Harvick, who have been together since 2014 but have one less championship than Busch and Stevens.

Asked about his future after the Texas win, Stevens said he hadn’t had such conversations with Joe Gibbs Racing, but he knew one thing.

“I know that I have a home at Joe Gibbs Racing and that’s most important, but this is a performance business, and we need a lot more nights like (Wednesday), a lot more like what we’re used to having,” Stevens said. “We’ll have those conversations here shortly I’m sure.”

Busch was asked that with some questioning him and Stevens what did the Texas win mean.

“That we can do it under any situation,” Busch said. “We can do it under pressure situations of racing for a championship and winning the final races at Homestead and bringing home two championships there, we can do it in the Coke 600, we can do it here when we’re knocked out of the playoffs and people would say that we’ve got nothing to race for, but we come out here and we’re able to win.

“There’s all kinds of different circumstances and different opportunities for us, and I’d like to think that we can be successful for a long time.”

3. New experience

Saturday’s Xfinity race at Martinsville — which will determine the final three drivers in the title race — is the first time the series has raced there since 2006. It is only the second time there in the last 25 years for the series.

“I would say that Martinsville is the biggest wildcard,” Justin Haley said of the playoff tracks for the series.

Said Ross Chastain: “I love that place. I’d race a wheelbarrow around there if it had a motor on it.”

Even with simulators and iRacing giving drivers a sense of what it will be like to run that track with the Xfinity car, there will still be plenty of learning during the race.

““Everyone is gonna be learning what’s possible and what’s not,” Austin Cindric said. “Obviously, the durable nature of an Xfinity car I think is gonna give a lot of people some second chances in that race, so unless you hit really hard, you’re not out. 

“I think there’s gonna be plenty of playoff drivers that are gonna have to never give up all race with how aggressive the style of racing is at Martinsville as of late in the Xfinity Series.”

Chase Briscoe is the only playoff driver who has qualified for the championship round at Phoenix.

Cindric, Justin Allgaier and Haley are in the remaining three transfer spots heading into the race. Cindric is 14 points above the cutline. Allgaier is eight points above the cutline. Haley is four points above the cutline.

Those who are below the cutline are Brandon Jones (-4 points), Chastain (-15), Noah Gragson (-24) and Ryan Sieg (-43).

4. One last chance

Sunday’s Cup race is the final chance for Chevrolet to snap its championship race drought.

The manufacturer has not had a car in the Cup title race since Jimmie Johnson won his seventh and final crown in 2016.

Chevrolet has three cars left in the playoffs but all are outside a transfer spot. Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott are each 25 points behind Brad Keselowski for the final transfer spot. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch is last among the eight remaining playoff drivers. He’s 81 points out of the last transfer spot and can only advance by winning.

On being down 25 points, Bowman said: “I view it like we should have run better all year and accumulated more playoff points. We run third and fifth the last two weeks and only lost points or stayed about the same. It comes down to we needed more playoff points throughout the year. … Martinsville has been very hit or miss for me. I feel like we need to go there and win.”

That’s the same approach for Elliott.

“For us, we need to go win,” he said. “That’s really the bottom line. I am not even going to look at points because, in my opinion, it really just doesn’t matter. If you can’t win races and win them consistently in the series you aren’t going to win a championship, anyway. We need to go there with the mindset of trying to win.”

5. Playoff comebacks

Only twice in the six previous years of the playoff format has a Cup driver outside a transfer spot entering the penultimate race of the season advanced.

Kevin Harvick entered the final race of the Round of 8 last among the playoff drivers in 2014. He won at Phoenix to advance and then won the championship the following week.

Last year, Denny Hamlin entered the final race of the Round of 8 fifth in the standings. He was 20 points out of a transfer spot. Hamlin won at Phoenix to make it to the title race. He finished fourth in the season standings.

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