Noah Gragson has made 116 career starts in NASCAR’s national divisions. 69 of them have come in the Xfinity Series with 47 more in the Camping World Truck Series. That number will grow by at least one this weekend when he will hop back behind the wheel of his No. 9 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports in NXS competition. But, Gragson, 22, is also hoping that number increases by two as well.
The Las Vegas native will enter the 63rd annual Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN) for Beard Motorsports as Wednesday will mark his Cup Series debut. He’s not made one single start in a Cup car and here he is in a one-off effort as of now trying to make the field in one of the four “open” spots available.
See, Beard Motorsports doesn’t own a charter. There’s 36 chartered teams that have a guaranteed spot into the Great American Race. Beard, is among eight open teams trying to take those remaining four spots.
Two of those four will go to the quickest open cars during qualifying on Wednesday night. The other two will be among the six remaining cars to race their ways into the ‘500 during the Duels on Thursday night.
That has Gragson feeling the pressure a bit as he is a tad worried about how the Duels will look. So, he’s spent a lot of time so far studying Denny Hamlin and how he races at Daytona. After all, that’s a great place to start since Hamlin has won three of the last five Daytona 500’s including two straight.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure, just with the situation itself of trying to qualify and make the Daytona 500,” said Gragson.
The No. 62 Chevrolet that Gragson will be driving has been good in the past on superspeedway’s anyways. This team was formed in 2017 with the intent on running just four races each season — all at Daytona/Talladega. Last year they added an extra to run the Daytona road course to go along with the four annual stops on the superspeedways too.
The team hired Brendan Gaughan for this endeavor and they’ve performed really well together on these tracks. In fact, Gaughan finished 11th in their official debut for the 2017 Daytona 500 and seventh in last year’s race. That seventh place finish tied the 2017 Coke Zero Sugar 400 as his best result in 17 starts with the team. Last year, Gaughan placed seventh and eighth respectively in the two points paying Daytona Cup races.
That was also Gaughan’s last year with the sport. He was retiring. So, instead of shutting the team down, the Beard’s leaned on Gaughan for a replacement. Gaughan, a Vegas native himself, chose Gragson and the Beard’s obliged.
Gragson, won last year’s NXS season opener at Daytona and ended 2020 with six top three finishes over the final seven races of the season. He also had 10 top eight results over the final 11 weeks and 14 in the last 16.
He brings as ton of momentum to a team that has typically produced good speedway cars. It’s a perfect fit for a loose Gragson to join a loose team.
Gragson noted that he thought it was a joke when Gaughan called him this past winter to see what his deal was with JR Motorsports and if he was allowed to race for other teams in Cup. Gaughan said he would call Kelly Earnhardt-Miller and ask permission. Gragson, still thinking this was a joke, got a call a day later from Gaughan who said that the permission wasn’t granted and that he’d have to go in a different direction. It was that moment to when Gragson felt like this was real and he was shockingly disappointed by this outcome.
Then Gaughan burst into laughter and said he was joking with Gragson and that he really did call Earnhardt-Miller and that she gave her blessing to allow Noah to race for them. Gragson, was going to run the Daytona 500. That’s when this thing became real for him.
Gragson said things have been so loose that he never has even signed a contract to race with Beard yet. He’s just showing up and racing. He said that he’s also never even met Mark Beard Sr. either. That was supposed to happen for the first time this week in Daytona.
Unfortunately, Beard Sr. passed away a few weeks ago. The team lost the patriarch of the operation. Was this going to be the end and they just close up shop?
That’s the opposite to what has happened in fact. The team will race in his honor and they’ve completely changed their mindset as well. Gragson said he was told that if he makes the ‘500, to just go down there and run around the back to be sure he’s there in the end. But, with the passing away, Beard’s wife has completely changed the tune.
“Tell that little shit to drive the piss out of it,” she said of Gragson.
Gragson, will drive for a team with heavy hearts but give 110-percent from the videos that he’s studied and hope to not only make the Daytona 500 field, but to be in contention in the closing laps of winning it as well.
It is an emotional story and a true underdog role, but one that’s also got a legitimate shot of triumphing too.