Noah Gragson maturing but still looks to put on a show

0 Comments

A feel-good story did not come to pass for Noah Gragson and the small Beard Motorsports team Thursday night in the Duels at Daytona International Speedway.

Still mourning the recent death of team owner, Mark Beard Sr., the No. 62 team faced adversity entering Thursday. The day before, Gragson was kept from making a qualifying run after his car failed inspection three times.

His only chance to make the Daytona 500 was to be the top-finishing non-chartered driver in Duel 2.

That chance was eliminated in a multi-car wreck with four laps to go that was triggered by contact between another non-chartered driver, Garrett Smithley, and Brad Keselowski.

Gragson, who was on the outside of Keselowski, had nowhere to escape.

With his Daytona 500 hopes dashed, Gragson has had to shift focus quickly. On Friday, the Xfinity Series regular was back in his familiar No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet to prepare for Saturday’s season opener.

He comes off a sophomore season where he earned two wins and 17 top-five finishes, but failed to make the Championship 4 after Harrison Burton snatched a playoff victory from him at Texas Motor Speedway.

Additionally, Gragson had several on-track clashes with competitors, including one with teammate Justin Allgaier at Bristol and another with Burton at Kentucky Speedway, which devolved into a post-race fight.

Not long after the Kentucky incident, Gragson took stock of his personal life and sought to eliminate unnecessary drama.

This maturation process remains ongoing, but entering a new season, he feels it’s working.

“I think it was a good change for me,” he said last week. “I needed to focus on myself and … don’t really focus in the moment. Have a plan and make some goals, and stick with your goals. It’s changed me for the better. I still talk to some of those people, but there’s no more distractions really in my life. I’ve surrounded myself with good people.

“I had a lot of weight on my shoulders last year. … I feel like it was time to make a change. We were going through a bit of a slump there, in the middle part of the season. It was a struggle. (But) I feel better now. I feel more confident than ever. Each day, getting closer to race season, it gets me more pumped up.”

But even as he matures, Gragson still declares himself as a “wreckers or checkers racer.”

In the wake of his various dust-ups last season, he attempted to refine his style. But the trade-off in the results was unacceptable to him and he returned to his aggressiveness.

“I tried that strategy of taking a step back and it wasn’t for the better,” he recalled. “We really suffered on speed at that point. I think you saw in the playoffs that I got to a point where I said, ‘Screw that, I’m going back to my own way.’ I’m gonna try to be coachable, but also stay true to myself and my style and what I feel comfortable with – hanging it out on the line, being sideways and edgy.

“I’m an adrenaline junkie. When I scare myself, that’s where I feel the most comfortable. I wanted to try what (team owner) Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) and other people were saying. I wanted to try and see if it would work, and I think I got my answer.”

So, it’s full speed ahead for Gragson, regardless of whether he scares himself, Dale Jr., or crew chief Dave Elenz with his exploits.

This season, Gragson looks to contend for a title against a stacked field.

Three of last year’s Championship 4, including Allgaier, have returned. Gragson is one of eight drivers from last year’s top 10 in points to return; Chase Briscoe and Ross Chastain, the outliers, have moved to the Cup Series.

While unsure if it’s a sign of his maturation, Gragson says he hasn’t thought about who may be his top rivals over the offseason.

He sees it as confidence in his own abilities.

“I feel like my biggest competition is myself and not getting myself into a rut,” he said. ” … I feel like we can be a championship contender, but at the end of the day, if I’m not fully prepared, it really doesn’t matter. The results won’t be there.

“I’m focused on our race team, (our sponsors), the No. 9 team, and myself to get the job done. I’m racing the race tracks and trying to go as fast as I can go. And if we go as fast as we can go, it doesn’t really matter where the other guys are.”

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups

0 Comments

LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

0 Comments

LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.

Chase Briscoe, AJ Allmendinger in first on-track conflict of the season.

0 Comments

LOS ANGELES — The first on-track conflict of the 2023 NASCAR Cup season?

Did you have Chase Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger?

They made contact during Saturday night’s practice session at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash.

Busch Clash practice results

Briscoe explained what happened from his point of view.

“(Allmendinger) was slowing down so much on the straightaway to get a gap (away from other cars),” Briscoe told Motor Racing Network. “I felt like I was beside him pretty far down the straightaway. I got in there a little hot for sure, but, honestly, I thought he was going to give it to me since we were in practice. Went into (Turn) 3 and he just drove me straight into the fence. Definitely frustrating. … Just unfortunate. We don’t have a single back-up car out there between the four of us at SHR. 

“Definitely will set us behind quite a bit. Just chalk it up in the memory blank.”

Asked what happened with Briscoe, Allmendinger told MRN: “He ran inside of me, so I made sure I paid him back and sent him into the fence.

“It’s practice. I get it, I’m struggling and in the way, but come barreling in there. I just showed my displeasure for it. That’s not the issue. We’re just not very good right now.”

Earlier in practice, Ty Gibbs had to climb out of his car after it caught on fire. Gibbs exiting the car safely. The Joe Gibbs Racing team worked on making repairs to his No. 54 car. NASCAR stated that the car would not be allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments, modifications not directly related to the damage.

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

0 Comments

LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.