By Dustin Albino

No matter what the stat sheet says, Noah Gragson always looks at himself as a favorite. Simply, he is fully confident in his ability.

“Whether it was 2019 when I was an eighth-place guy, I still had the mentality of going to run in the top three,” Gragson recently told Jayski.com. “Now, it‘s a little more of I know I‘m one of the guys this year. You‘ve got to be confident in yourself and bet on yourself. When I go to the racetrack, you already think you‘re going to beat those guys. The results are what the results are going to be, but you have to be confident in your ability.”

Gragson’s 2022 schedule has ramped up. Not only is the Las Vegas native chasing an Xfinity Series championship for JR Motorsports, but he’ll be competing in 14 races in the Cup Series for Kaulig Racing, beginning this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He also competed in the Daytona 500 with Beard Motorsports, making it into the race for the part-time team. 

There’s also been a plethora of change around the 23-year-old this season. After having Dave Elenz crew chief Gragson for his first three years with JRM, Elenz departed the team for an opportunity in the Cup Series with Petty GMS Motorsports. Luke Lambert, a veteran, now steps in as a race-winning crew chief in both the Cup and Xfinity Series’. 

While Gragson said he had no contribution to who replaced Elenz, he instantly took a liking to Lambert. He was sold on the idea that the duo could add onto the No. 9 team’s Championship 4 run from one season ago. 

“He‘s a badass and super cool,” Gragson said of Lambert. “He‘s everything I could have wished for in a guy to replace Dave. I feel like our relationship has gotten off to a great start.”

Great start? Well, that’s an understatement. 

Through four Xfinity Series races this season, Gragson has finished no worse than third. He’s coming off a commanding win at Phoenix Raceway, leading 114 of 200 laps. Add that to stage wins at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and the No. 9 bunch has already racked up eight playoff points. 

The last driver to start the year off with four consecutive top-three finishes? Elliott Sadler, who was also crew chiefed by Lambert. 

And the new duo still isn’t satisfied. 

“We‘re still trying to improve on a certain number of areas,” Lambert said this week. “I‘ve been pleased with where we‘ve kicked off [the season] at and feel like reaching the goals that we want to reach are well within our reach. Hopefully, that will put us on track to continue getting the results that we need as the season progresses.”

After four events, Gragson has an emphatic 39-point advantage over Ty Gibbs for the regular season championship lead. 

And while Gragson’s main goal is tasting champagne and raising the Xfinity Series championship trophy in November at that same Phoenix track he just dominated at, he’s entering a new chapter of his career. In a way, it’s an audition for the future. 

At the end of last season, Chris Rice, president of Kaulig Racing started chatting with Brandon McReynolds, who is Gragson‘s manager. The team wanted a current Chevy driver to help represent them in a partial Cup Series schedule. 

From there, it fell into place that Gragson could run the necessary races. And when the opportunity came up, the driver couldn’t say no, despite being rivals with the same team on Saturdays. 

“I‘m still going to race them hard,” Gragson added. “I told them I‘m not going to change anything on Saturdays, but I‘ll be all in on Sundays.”

While Gragson is thrilled for the opportunity to compete regularly at the top level, he knows it comes with another set of challenges. Compared to full-time drivers in Cup, he has significantly less experience with the Next Gen car, having only run at Daytona. Prior to this season, he’d only met the No. 16 crew chief Matt Swiderski once. The team hadn’t even created a seat insert for him. 

Away from the track, Gragson’s preparation hasn’t changed much. He’s putting in the effort during the week in order to be successful on the weekend.

“Noah has been working really hard for years to get to where he is now,” Josh Wise, who provides comprehensive physical training for Gragson, said. “Just refining his physical and mental abilities and how he‘s thinking about his races and craft.” 

Not knowing what to expect in his Cup starts, Gragson is going into it open minded. Through the first handful of races, there are no expectations. 

“My goal going into these first five or six races is to finish every lap and gain experience to do your job,” he said. “Make sure you‘re good on pit road, good on restarts and however it cycles out is how it‘s going to cycle out. Once you get some races, you can start to reevaluate.”

Admittedly, Gragson does believe there will be some distraction jumping between series this year. At the same time, he’s getting valuable track time and gaining knowledge, despite the Next Gen car being completely different from an Xfinity car. 

Quickly, he believes, it will become second nature. 

“It‘s just like riding a bike, if Kyle Larson can go from a sprint car to racing a Cup car on a road course, anyone can do it,” Gragson added. “The only thing that changes is your brain, mind and making decisions. You‘ve got to be able to flip the switch and know what you‘re driving and drive it as fast as you can.”

There are worse things Gragson could be doing in his down time, Lambert noted. So if he’s out driving a racecar and fine tuning on his craft, that’s perfectly acceptable in his book.

“I think it‘s only going to help our efforts, even though it‘s going to be different in a lot of ways — some tracks more than others — in the way you approach our races,” Lambert said. “I think it can only benefit him to gain that experience, and I think he‘s going to excel in it.

“If you‘re looking at my position of what you want your racecar driver to be spending his time doing on his days off, driving a racecar at the top level is a good option.”

Wise also believes Gragson will shine with his current opportunity.

“I think it‘s going to be a good learning experience for him and I think he‘s going to do really well,” he said. “I don‘t necessarily measure that by a finishing position, it‘s more about how he‘s going to execute the races.”

Rice just wants Gragson to be competitive, adding knowledge to the team‘s first full season in Cup. He‘s holding the driver to the same standard as fellow Kaulig drivers AJ Allmendinger, Daniel Hemric and Justin Haley. 

“We are shooting to run 15 to 20th each week, which we have been,” Rice said in a statement. “Our goal is also for them to help us learn about this NextGen car and grow our organization as a multi-car Cup Series team.”

In past years, Gragson might not be ready to face the challenge ahead. But now in his sixth full year of competition at one of NASCAR’s national levels, he’s equipped for it.

“I think I‘m finally mature enough to be able to really get the most out of my attention and make the most of this opportunity,” he said. “Years past, I probably wasn‘t ready to fully appreciate the opportunity that I have right now. I‘m just trying to make the most of everyone‘s time and there‘s a lot of hard work being put in.

“I‘m trying to be the best I can be and really focus in on Monday through Friday, so when we get to the racetrack, it‘s fun. You do your homework during the week, go for the test on the weekends and you should know all the answers.”

Entering the opportunity with Kaulig, Gragson doesn’t know what’s in store past this season. He’s hoping to have a definitive answer a few months down the road.

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