AVONDALE, Ariz. — It took four years, but Noah Gragson had his career-year for JR Motorsports in 2022. Now, he’s moving to the Cup Series next year.
Gragson and his No. 9 JR Motorsports team had one goal left to accomplish in 2022, though: Win the Xfinity Series championship. And he entered Phoenix as the favorite, dominating the spring race in the desert en route to his first victory of the season.
Between then and the season finale, Gragson won seven more times on a multitude of different style of racetracks. But when the four cars took to the track for Friday’s practice session, Ty Gibbs was quick. He backed that speed up in qualifying, claiming his fifth pole of the season.
“It was clear from practice and throughout the entire event that the 54 had a little bit more than what we did,” Dale Earnhardt Jr., co-owner of JRM said.
While Gibbs won both stages and led a race-high 125 laps, Gragson was a frontrunner, finishing second and third, respectively, in the opening two stages.
Throughout the 200-mile race, Gragson had three mediocre pit stops, losing him a total of nine positions. But he still had a chance, though lining up for a late-race restart in eighth.
“We still had laps left, and we still had opportunity,” Gragson noted. “We weren’t wrecked. We weren’t in the garage.”
Within two laps, Gragson rocketed to third position. His JRM teammate Josh Berry bounced off the wall and dropped outside the top 20. The battle was on between Gragson, Gibbs and Justin Allgaier.
Once Gibbs got by Allgaier for the lead with 21 laps left, Gragson was not far behind. He made quick work of the No. 7 Chevrolet, giving him a chance at Gibbs.
Battling through lapped traffic, Gragson closed the gap on Gibbs, but ultimately came up four-tenths of a second shy from winning.
And even with all the smack talk throughout the week, Gragson wanted to make the pass clean.
“I wanted to win it fair and square, and I didn’t know what would happen if I did try it,” Gragson said of making a move on Gibbs. “I was more focused on just trying to get a good run off of [Turn] 2. We were just too tight and I wasn’t close enough.”
Gibbs, who has ruffled many feathers in the past week — and during the 2022 season — could have taken the No. 54 car out and gotten a universal cheer from the fanbase. But he was raced with respect from Gibbs throughout the event and wanted to pay that back.
“Ty did a great job of staying off of our cars; he never once did anything that I thought was questionable,” Earnhardt added. “We gave it everything we had and the best car won the race.”
For the team owner that put three cars into the Championship 4, admitting that the No. 54 Toyota was stout was hard. But going into the week, Earnhardt stated he wanted his drivers to win it clean and not take out Gibbs.
If they couldn’t win it clean, Earnhardt would have rather finished second.
“We should never go out there and try to do anything that we should be ashamed of; it’s not worth it,” he said on Thursday. “It’s not worth it for me anyways. I’ve won enough championships; I don’t need one that badly.”
Even in defeat, Gragson congratulated his rival on the frontstretch. He did it because, “They did a good job. They beat us.”
Finishing runner-up to Gibbs, Gragson comes just short of winning the championship. It’s his best finish in the season-long rankings.
In the process, Gragson had a year to remember. The No. 9 team won a series-high eight races and 21 top-five finishes. He finished the year with 1,010 laps led, 20 laps more than Gibbs.
With the move to Petty GMS on the horizon, Gragson has graduated from the Xfinity Series where he learned valuable lessons. He, like Gibbs, went through the maturation process when he ruffled a lot of feathers.
No doubt, he’s going to miss the series where names are made. His name is among the latest.
“Grateful to be able to have the opportunity these last four years with JR Motorsports,” he said. “Our [No.]9 team is so tight and we have so much fun. Would have loved to close the year out with a championship, but not meant to be. We just needed to be better tonight.”
Gragson ends his Xfinity tenure with 13 victories.