Noah Gragson will make his NASCAR Cup Series debut next month as he will drive the No. 62 Chevrolet for Beard Motorsports in the 62nd annual Daytona 500. But, Gragson also revealed via a media conference call on Thursday afternoon that he actually wasn’t their first choice either.
Gragson, said that the team initially called Jimmie Johnson to see his interest of driving the part time entry. See, Johnson said last year that just because he was retiring from his No. 48 Chevrolet seat at Hendrick Motorsports, that it’s not necessarily a firm goodbye. He’d still be open for more one-off starts in the future. He just didn’t want to commit to racing for 36 race weekend’s anymore.
So, a team that has focused on just the four superspeedway races including the Daytona 500 could have been an intriguing fit for the seven-time champion. Instead, Johnson respectfully declined which paved the path for the JR Motorsports driver to make his debut.
That led the next phone call coming in Gragson’s direction. He was the second choice and the recipient on the other end of the next call out. Some may wonder then, where did this come from? Why Gragson?
Well, Gragson, is a very talented race car driver. He scored two wins, earned 17 top-five finishes, 25 top-10’s and led 622 laps in his second full time Xfinity Series season. He’s considered a future star in this sport.
He’s also a Las Vegas native just like Brendan Gaughan too. There’s some similarities there in fact. Gaughan, has an obvious close relationship with Beard Motorsports and his opinion on his replacement with them was held in high regard.
Gaughan likes Gragson and thinks he’s a great fit for this team and can help them succeed.
“Noah is in a really great position,” Gaughan said. “He’ll be in his third year of Xfinity with a strong team in JR Motorsports and he’ll get to sample and understand what the Cup Series is about. Every time you strap into a racecar it’s an opportunity to learn, but it’s also supposed to be fun. He’ll be able to do both with Beard Motorsports.”
Gaughan, also knows that Beard is a small team and can’t afford someone to come in and be reckless with their equipment either. he says that Gragson did a great job of making sure his car is in one piece in Trucks and Xfinity and is always there in the end with a shot at winning.
It would be a great combination for the two sides to come together for the biggest race of the season.
“I’ve known Noah a long time and I know he’s a very good racecar driver who is ready to do some Cup racing,” Gaughan continued. “Just as importantly, he takes good care of his equipment and he’s there at the end of races. In his entire Xfinity Series career, he’s only had four DNFs. That’s important no matter who you’re racing for, but it’s especially important for Beard Motorsports.
“I’m proud to see Noah have this opportunity and proud to see another Las Vegas guy in the NASCAR Cup Series.”
Before joining the Xfinity Series fulltime in 2019, Gragson competed in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 2017 and 2018. He won twice and finished second in the 2018 championship.
Those Truck Series results were a continuation of the kind of talent Gragson showcased in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series. In 2015 and 2016, Gragson raced in this developmental league, regionally split into two divisions – K&N Pro Series East and K&N Pro Series West. Gragson won six races between the two entities and narrowly missed out on the 2015 West title by a scant seven points.
“When you’re racing Late Models and trying to work your way up, the Daytona 500 seems pretty far away,” Gragson said. “To have it become a reality is something I don’t take lightly. I’m ready for this moment and I’m proud to have it.”
Beard Motorsports has proven to be the little team that could, a modern-day David competing against the Goliaths of the NASCAR Cup Series. Owned by Mark Beard Sr., president of Beard Motorsports and various family businesses, Beard Motorsports has taken a strategic approach to its racing endeavors, forming a technical partnership with Richard Childress Racing (RCR) and running only the superspeedway races at Daytona and Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. With cars constructed by RCR and powered by ECR-built engines, Beard Motorsports can race at the front, a fact proven by Gaugahn’s two top-10s in 2020 – seventh in the Daytona 500 and eighth in the Coke Zero Sugar 400, also at Daytona.
“Racing is our passion project,” said Beard, a former driver who made two Xfinity Series starts in the 1980s. “Even with Brendan’s retirement, we wanted to keep racing. We’ve accomplished a lot with the resources we have and we’re proud to give Noah the chance to chase his dream just like we chase ours.
“On top of that, racing has proven to be a very valuable asset for our companies, like Beard Oil Distributing. We’re very passionate about what we do, and the Daytona 500 is an excellent platform to show our customers the level of commitment we put into all of our work.”
But, back to the Johnson thing now too. It’s not shocking that Johnson declined. While he’s hinted in the past about coming back to race the Daytona 500 again, he said last month that he’s staying away from NASCAR for a while so he can unlearn what he knows from there and try and learn as much as he can for his NTT IndyCar Series endeavor.
“I don’t think I’d do it right now,” Johnson said in December of racing in the Busch Clash since he has a guaranteed spot. “Just in pure transparency, I need to not drive a stock car for a while to really reprogram my senses in my brain to drive downforce. It’s just a total different way to get through the center of a corner.
“I really need to stay focused in developing the right habits in IndyCar.”
Johnson, will race 13 times in the NTT IndyCar Series in 2021 for Chip Ganassi Racing. He’s taking this entire journey seriously. He has to. He knows the spotlight will be on him the next two years in the series and he doesn’t want to fail.
“The season is going to be here before I know it and of course, there is going to be a big spotlight on me in how I perform in the car,” Johnson said on his INDYCAR opportunity.
Most of the other drivers came up through open wheel ranks where you have a different style of racing. Johnson, has 20+ years in a completely different form, so he’s having to forget everything he’s already known and try to learn everything new in a span of four months.
“Just adapting to this new environment,” Johnson said during his Barber test in November. “There’s so many things that are foreign to me, working through a lot of those little technicalities with the car, with the cockpit, procedures, then trying to get some laps in there as well.
“Everything is sped, it’s so much quicker, from the car speed everything, so much quicker, closing rate, braking distance. All those things just compound, things happen a lot quicker.
“Each time I go on track, things seem to slow down a bit more for me. I’m able to work through all that stuff to get faster and get more comfortable.”
So, this was a perfect storm for Gragson, Gaughan and the team. Johnson wasn’t ready yet and Gragson is.