2022 NXS Playoff Preview: Lambert, Gragson All About Confidence, Execution in Title Quest

Ron Lemasters | 9/19/2022

News

Noah Gragson and the No. 9 team enter the playoffs as the top seed after racking up six wins in the regular season.

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (Sept. 19, 2022) -- With the way that Luke Lambert, Noah Gragson and the rest of the No. 9 Bass Pro Shops/TrueTimber/Black Rifle Coffee team has been running in the lead-up to the NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs, there is little doubt that the group is one of the favorites to emerge with a championship in 2022.

Are they the favorites? It depends on who you ask.

If you ask Lambert, the answer is…optimistic, with a dose of caution thrown in for good measure.

For the season, Gragson, Lambert and the No. 9 team have won six races—at Phoenix, Talladega, Pocono, Darlington, Kansas and Bristol—the last three on consecutive weekends heading into the Round of 12. Gragson became the first driver in team history to earn three consecutive victories with his triumph last weekend at Bristol.

Over the final 10 races of the regular season, Gragson and Lambert have visited Victory Lane four times—at Pocono, Darlington, Kansas and Bristol—and added finishes of third (Michigan), fourth (Watkins Glen) and sixth at Atlanta.

For the season, the team has won its six races at wildly different venues. The wins have come at the 1-mile oval at Phoenix in March, the 2.66-mile superspeedway at Talladega in April, the 2.5-mile triangle at Pocono, the always-wicked 1.366-mile oval at Darlington, the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway and at Bristol Motor Speedway's .533-mile concrete bullring.

Those wins are impressive in their own right; what might be more impressive for Lambert, Gragson and the No. 9 team is the fact that the Pocono and Kansas victories came at tracks no JRM driver or team had ever triumphed on before.

While Gragson and the team rank fourth in the driver standings, Gragson has amassed more playoff points than any other driver. In addition to the 30 points for winning those six races, Gragson has won a series-high 13 stages, each worth a playoff point, and earned an additional eight points for finishing fourth in the regular-season standings to bring his total to 51.

Lambert, in his first season as crew chief of the No. 9 team, has had his team getting ready for the playoff grind for several weeks now.

"For us, we've really been trying to get ourselves in playoff form for the past month and a half," he said. "We've been trying to take weekly steps to improve our program and really try to approach the races as if each one of them is a playoff race to try and get our mindset right. That's really been our focus."

Based on performance over that span, it's spot-on. But one never knows what might happen when the playoffs begin for real.

"I feel good about the direction we're going, but the playoffs are always going to present some unexpected scenarios and we just want to be prepared for them and be the strongest team possible to react to them," Lambert said.

With a playoff berth clinched early in the season at Phoenix, Lambert has been focused on making the push at the right time, and communication among his group is the key, he said.

"Everyone is working hard to do their job, and obviously there are still things that we can work on and get better at every week," Lambert said. "We come back, look at it, talk about it. We're in the process of trying to iron that out and get better at it as a team. I feel like it's showing up, but we're certainly not finished."

For Lambert, the biggest competition his team will face might just be in the same building, as all four JRM cars are playoff contenders.

 "I think we have four of the strongest cars in the series, but we definitely have other teams that we compete against," Lambert said. "The Gibbs cars and the Kaulig guys, particularly the 16 car (AJ Allmendinger), has been consistent this year and consistency can carry a long way through the playoffs."

Gragson went a step farther in his assessment.

"I think we have a lot of great drivers and talented individuals working on the cars," he said. "We can maybe have four cars running for a championship at Phoenix. That would be really cool. Nonetheless, I would be happy if any of our cars can make it to the final race and win the championship, and I hope that I'm the guy to do that."

Not content with being the hottest team in the series at this point in the season, Lambert is focused on keeping the edge keen as the postseason begins.

"We definitely can't get comfortable and have to be ready to do whatever it takes," he said. "In general, it comes down to focusing on our race team and being the best race team we can possibly be every week and building on that. That's what we plan to continue doing that."

The Round of 12 does no favors for any of the playoff contenders, with races at Texas Motor Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway and the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Lambert is well aware of that.

 "The first round, the Round of 12, could definitely present the most unexpected scenarios," he said. "It is a challenge to get through and we can't get overly confident or comfortable approaching it, even though it appears that right now we may roll into them with the lead based on bonus points. We are going to have to do our job every week and improve and execute to carry ourselves as far as we want to go."

Gragson, from the driver's view, said the Round of 12 is critical.

"Talladega is one where you can lose a lot of points, but Texas is a good track for us," Gragson said. "You can't bank on it being easy, by any means. You have to go out, execute and attack, be aggressive and try to win races to get to the Round of 8. If you can win, great, but getting wins and playoff points is the key to the Round of 12."

With his cache of playoff points, that will be a bit easier, but nothing is guaranteed.

"Luckily, we do have a lot of playoff points going into the postseason, so that's good," Gragson said. "Overall, I feel like these are good tracks for our team and a good place to be for me as a driver and I hope we can run well at all of them. I don't see why we can't have an opportunity to win all of them, either."

The No. 9 team at JRM has never suffered from a lack of confidence. All three of the NXS titles JR Motorsports owns have been won by the No. 9, and there is a certain…swagger associated with it inside the building and outside as well.

There's confidence, Lambert said, but there is also respect for who he, Gragson and the rest of the team will have to overcome to win the series crown.

"Our confidence level is very high, but we are realistic in understanding that there are a lot of strong teams that we are competing against, and we have to continue to push and support each other and make improvements to be a championship-caliber team."

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XFINITY Series Schedule

  • October 1 04:00 PM ET
    Sparks 300Talladega Superspeedway
  • October 8 03:00 PM ET
    Drive for the Cure 250Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval
  • October 15 03:00 PM ET
    Alsco Uniforms 302Las Vegas Motor Speedway
  • October 22 04:30 PM ET
    Contender Boats 250Homestead-Miami Speedway
  • October 29 03:00 PM ET
    Dead On Tools 250Martinsville Speedway

XFINITY Series Standings

After Andy’s Frozen Custard 300

Texas Motor Speedway | 9/24/2022
RankDriverPointsBehind
1Noah Gragson (P)21070
2AJ Allmendinger (P)2081-26
3Ty Gibbs (P)2080-27
4Austin Hill # (P)2064-43
5Josh Berry (P)2058-49
6Justin Allgaier (P)2054-53
7Sam Mayer (P)2035-72