Gragson, No. 10 Team Build Confidence with Sixth-Place Surge

By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS – They say what happens in Vegas tends to stay there, but what transpired in Noah Gragson’s third NASCAR Cup Series start at his home track is sure to follow him for quite some time.

The 25-year-old clearly had more than “Lady Luck” on his side when hitting Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the first time in his No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, because a weekend that began with prominent speed, wound up being an constant uphill battle to overcome.

Gragson began his homecoming by posting the second-fastest overall time in practice. But after directly following that up with a disappointing, 30th-place qualifying effort for the Pennzoil 400, it appeared things may not be trending in the right direction for the struggling Ford stable after all. 

Once the green flag waved on Sunday, all those notions gradually started getting put to rest.

By the end of Stage One, Gragson had driven his way up to the top-15. As the second segment came to a close, he’d begun reeling in established veterans and former champions such as Chase Elliott and Joey Logano with his sights set on a top-10.

While there wasn’t much of a competition for winner Kyle Larson, who led a race-high 181-of-267 laps, there are such things as small victories, that of which Gragson secured in an impressive sixth-place surge.

Gragson’s top-10 day marked his second in three starts with Stewart-Haas Racing after only scoring one in 18 attempts with Legacy Motor Club last year.

“It feels good to do it in front of the hometown crowd,” Gragson said. “Drew Blickensderfer (crew chief) and the rest of these guys just did an awesome job. It’s cool to have more top-10s this year in three races than I’ve had my whole career.

“I really wanted a top-five. Coming from 30th to sixth, I’m just really proud of everyone.”

Blickensderfer, now in his 16th year being a crew chief in Cup, has been a fixture at the sport’s top rank as a level-headed and respected strategist known for helping develop relatively inexperienced teams and drivers. 

Outside of working with Matt Kenseth and Jeff Burton, he’s been paired with Marcos Ambrose, Sam Hornish Jr., and even Bubba Wallace when he first got promoted to Cup.

Most recently, Blickensderfer was with Michael McDowell for three seasons, including when he won the 2021 Daytona 500, and with Aric Almirola on the No. 10 team the past two years.

As someone with a good pulse on the sport and first hand experience of the struggles within Stewart-Haas Racing, the crew chief of the No. 10 has liked what he’s seen from his team compared to the last couple seasons.

“ I thought our cars had probably more potential this year, and that showed it,” Blickensderfer said. “I think we were passing cars that win races at the end of that race. We haven’t been in that situation in the last year or two. 

“Days like today build confidence to where we should improve on that. (Noah’s) gonna unload at Phoenix and just feel better about everything we have going on, and that’s invaluable.”

While it may be a small sample size, things are looking up for Gragson and Stewart-Haas Racing. Anytime a young driver and battle-tested team can walk away with a top-10 day, it’s huge. But the manner in which it was achieved shouldn’t be overlooked.

After starting 30th, Gragson had worked his way to the top-20 by the time the first caution flew on Lap 11. Then, the lug nut came off the right-rear wheel during the first pit stop of the day, setting them as far back as 34th on the restart.

This would end up being the No. 10 team’s only flaw throughout the afternoon, in a race where many contenders like Kyle Busch and fourth-place finisher Ross Chastain faltered late on pit road.

But for Gragson, the most challenging thing for him on track was capitalizing on restarts. He’d consistently lose a handful of spots each time racing resumed, until his final attempt of the day, where he restarted 10th and drove up to as high as fifth in the closing 27 laps.

“I lost spots on pretty much every restart all day except for the last one, so I knew where not to go,” Gragson said. “I went to the bottom, I went to the top, I tried to go up to the fence – nothing really worked. Then that last one, I just stuck middle-tight to those guys’ doors, and we got a good run off (Turn) 2, and got to clear some of those guys.”

Overall, Gragson’s most important lessons learned from his career-day were staying persistent and mentally focused. 

In leaning on these themes, he was able to score his first quality finish on a non-drafting track in Cup and was ranked the fifth-most efficient passer in the Pennzoil 400 according to Auto Racing Analytics at 35.9%.

Leaving Las Vegas, Gragson and the No. 10 team made their presence known. While he may have come up one-spot short of matching his career-best finish at NASCAR’s top level, the 25-year-old should have a tidal wave of momentum and confidence on his side entering Phoenix.

“Last year was a challenge,” Gragson said. “I felt like I had to drive way over my head just to keep up for like 33rd. This, I feel a lot calmer, a lot more relaxed, the car has a lot of speed, and that allows me just to be patient and methodical and letting the race come to me. 

“It’s just our third race together as a group, so we want to keep on growing. Communication is everything, and it’s going to still take weeks to keep on growing, but we’re going to get there.”

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