Season in Review: Gragson Breaks Through to Championship 4

Ron Lemasters | 11/30/2021

Bass Pro Shops Black Rifle Coffee News Noah Gragson TrueTimber

Noah Gragson made his first Xfinity Series Championship 4 appearance in 2021 for JR Motorsports, falling just short in the title-deciding race at Phoenix Raceway.

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (Nov. 30, 2021) -- Noah Gragson made his first Championship 4 appearance in 2021 for JR Motorsports, falling just short in the title-deciding race at Phoenix Raceway. That he made the final four to race for the championship was a heroic tale in and of itself.

A year after setting career highs in both top-five and top-10 finishes, the numbers fell a bit after some early bad luck in 2021, and it was really bad luck to start.

The first five races of the season saw Gragson and the Bass Pro Shops/TrueTimber Camo/Black Rifle Coffee Chevrolet finish 28th or worse in four of them, sandwiched around a fifth-place run on his home track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the fourth race of the year.

Especially painful was the race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the third of the season. One of Gragson's favorite tracks, the young driver had a burning desire to win a race there and looked to have done so with a commanding lead coming to the white flag. In Turn 3 on that lap, a lapped car cut a tire and wobbled up the track, directly in the path of Gragson's No. 9 Chevrolet. Committed to the high line with no chance to avoid it, Gragson piled into the helpless car, ending his day with a 33rd-place finish.

"It started out rough, and we had some challenges at the beginning of the season," Gragson said. "The first two-thirds of the season, honestly, was rough, but the final third of the season it seemed to turn around. Things started to turn around, winning races, and things like that."

Rallying to the fifth-place finish at Las Vegas the following week, Gragson was hopeful of having banished the demons, Gragson went to Phoenix for the next race prepared to win. Starting 10th, Gragson was running near the front when he suffered a mechanical failure and finished 39th.

The first of what would be several rallies began in the next race, at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Starting from 30th position, Gragson moved through the field to eventually finish fourth, kicking off a four-race stretch in which Gragson, crew chief Dave Elenz and the rest of the No. 9 team finished no worse than sixth.

The Atlanta finish pushed him up five spots in series points to 14th, and it also qualified him for the Xfinity Dash 4 Cash bonus at Martinsville Speedway. Gragson, who had won his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race on the .526-mile paperclip, led 12 laps and finished second behind teammate Josh Berry to bank the $100,000 bonus, the second time in two seasons Gragson had cashed a big check in the program (Atlanta 2020).

The following week's rain-shortened race at Talladega Superspeedway saw Gragson notch a sixth-place finish and his second straight Dash 4 Cash bonus. It also pushed him into the top 10 in points for the first time in 2021. The Dash 4 Cash victory also qualified him for a third try at the cash prize at Darlington.

Gragson led 40 laps on NASCAR's first superspeedway and finished fourth, cashing another $100,000 Dash 4 Cash check in the process and earning a chance at a sweep of the big-money races. The finish also boosted him to seventh in series points.

In the Dash 4 Cash finale at Dover International Speedway, Gragson was in position to battle for the race win and the sweep, but an unscheduled trip to pit lane near the end of the race relegated him to 15th at the finish.

"That was cool," Gragson said with a grin. "That kind of got overlooked in the first half of the season, but it was great to be able to win three of the four and then get the fourth with Josh at Dover and bring home all four to JR Motorsports.

"It's awesome for the company, it helps out and it's great what Xfinity does for the series. We've won four, including one last year at Atlanta, so I do enjoy the Dash 4 Cash races."

Sitting seventh in the standings with a ton of momentum, Gragson looked to capitalize on his recent success with a strong finish in the series' inaugural trip to Circuit of the Americas, the second road course race of the season. In the rain, Gragson fell victim to a mechanical issue just 13 laps into the event and finished 36th. The following week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the young driver was swept up in a multi-car crash just 13 laps from the end to finish 27th. Hoping to recover at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the next event on the schedule, Gragson was pushed off the track in Turn 1 and ran over the exposed edge of an access road, tearing the oil tank out of his Bass Pro Shops/TrueTimber/Black Rifle Coffee Chevrolet. He finished 40th.

If Gragson's season was going to wind up in the Championship 4, things had to turn around at that point. Just 13 races remained before the playoff field would be determined, and the young driver and his team had work to do.

They did the work.

Over those 13 races, Gragson earned two victories (at Richmond Raceway and Darlington), six top-five and 11 top-10 finishes, punching his ticket to the playoffs and putting a surge of momentum behind his championship push.

When the season turned around, Gragson remembered the rough patches before and credited the following as the most significant moment of 2021.

"I think, really, it was sitting in Dave's office when times were bad and just saying, ‘hey, we're at the bottom of the wheel right now, and it just needs to spin back and we'll be back at the top. We don't need to change anything. We just need to keep fighting, keep digging.'

"Really, it's the memories that we made. The wins are cool, all the other stuff is cool, but the memories really stand out in my mind. Going into battle each and every week, being able to really have a family on the 9 team. We do it for the wins, but it's the memories that will stick out in my mind forever."

Though nothing outwardly had changed, Gragson said, it was the attitude that turned his season around.

"We didn't do anything different," he said. "There were highs and lows, but we just kept pushing. There are times when you are at your low, but I stayed motivated with Josh Wise (trainer) and the team and hoping it turns around."

The victories at Richmond and Darlington put an exclamation point on Gragson's rebound from his tough start to the season and put him in the must-watch category as the playoffs began. For the second straight race at Darlington, Gragson led 40 laps and this time took the victory, the third of his career and first of the season, by holding off Harrison Burton on a green-white-checkered restart. The win clinched his spot in the playoffs.

The following race at Richmond, run on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Gragson led the final 14 laps to win for the second straight week. Aided by a pair of cautions in the final laps, Gragson held off cars with fresher tires to earn the victory, advancing to third on the playoff grid.

In the playoffs, Gragson opened with a strong third-place run at Las Vegas before getting tangled up in a multi-car crash at Talladega. A sixth-place run at the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway saw Gragson easily advance to the Round of 8.

At Texas, Gragson cruised to a third-place finish, and the following race at Kansas saw the Nevada native hit another speed bump. Racing in the top five with 21 laps remaining, Gragson was swept up by the spinning car of Burton, who had made contact with another car and slid to the wall. The damage ended his night in 35th position and made the cutoff race at Martinsville nearly a must-win for Gragson and the No. 9 team.

Entering the penultimate race of the season having to win to make it to the Championship 4, Gragson did just that, leading a race-best 153 laps and surviving a wild green-white-checkered duel with Austin Cindric to earn the victory and a spot in the winner-take-all championship race. On his victory lap, Gragson burned the rear tires off his Chevrolet in celebration.

In the final race, at Phoenix Raceway, Gragson was running third with six laps to go behind Championship 4 rivals Cindric and Daniel Hemric when he slid high and made contact with the wall, dropping him to sixth in the running order with a damaged Camaro. Over the remaining laps, Gragson faded to 12th at the finish. The result put him third in the final standings.

Despite the fact that he fell short in the Championship race, Gragson reflected that making it to the end of the season with a chance at the title was a big accomplishment.

"Winning at Martinsville, that was the biggest win of my career so far," Gragson said. "It got us to the championship race, and while we'd had the opportunity to do that, we'd never made it to the final race with a chance at the championship. Finishing 12th...that wasn't where we wanted to be, but we'll regroup and come back and do it again."

Gragson returns for a fourth season at JRM in 2022 with Bass Pro Shops as his primary sponsor.

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XFINITY Series Schedule

  • February 19 05:00 PM ET
    Beef. It's What's For Dinner. 300Daytona International Speedway
  • February 26 05:00 PM ET
    Production Alliance 300Auto Club Speedway
  • March 5 04:30 PM ET
    Alsco Uniforms 300Las Vegas Motor Speedway
  • March 12 04:30 PM ET
    NXS Race at PhoenixPhoenix Raceway
  • March 19 05:00 PM ET
    Nalley Cars 250Atlanta Motor Speedway

XFINITY Series Standings

After NXS Championship

Phoenix Raceway | 11/6/2021
RankDriverPointsBehind
1Daniel Hemric (P)40400
2Austin Cindric (P)4035-5
3Noah Gragson (P)4025-15
4AJ Allmendinger (P)4023-17
5Justin Allgaier2300-1740
6Justin Haley2244-1796
7Brandon Jones2239-1801
15Michael Annett638-3402
25Sam Mayer #338-3702