By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Noah Gragson had that first-time winning feel a year ago at Martinsville Speedway, scoring his maiden NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victory at the 0.526-mile circuit. Now entering the Round of 6 with a strong chance of battling for the championship, Gragson comes to the track with a different feel.
Prior to all activities being cancelled due to rain, Gragson spoke to the media during Friday’s press conference and described each visit to Martinsville is different than the last because of the weather conditions impacting how the circuit takes rubber.
“I feel like this race track itself is different every time you come here,” Gragson said. “You can come with the same setup for 10 years and you’re going to run differently every single time. It’s just the way the track takes rubber.”
In the tour’s last stop in March, both rain and snow plagued the weekend, and the 250-lap race was no exception. Orginally scheduled to be completed Saturday March 24, Mother Nature won that day after the race completed just 23 laps and was postponed for the following day. However, weather wasn’t cooperative and pushed both Trucks and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races to Monday due to snow.
Once the race resumed, Gragson would end up finishing fifth and said the lack of track time because of weather doesn’t bode well into their setup that could help him score his second straight fall Martinsville victory.
“I feel like the weather and the temperature outside plays a big part in that. I don’t know,” Gragson said. “I’m coming back with a different setup than what we had in the springtime here, so not getting any practice, you can’t really lean on past success here.”
The best solution for the 20-year-old was having some ice cream with crew chief Rudy Fugle, and discuss their gameplan as he enters the Round of 6 opener 17 points behind points leader Johnny Sauter, and 11 ahead of fifth-place Justin Haley, who’s on the outside looking in. This is where Saturday’s Texas Roadhouse 200 came into play.
“Just been trying to work hard with my crew chief. He and I sat down,” Gragson said. “We had ice cream a couple days ago for about an hour and just talked about this weekend and what we needed to do about this round in the playoffs and then Martinsville and just coming here with a different setup. It’s going to be challenging, so hopefully we can get it dialed in in three rounds of practice and then go race.”
If Gragson were to pull off the victory, it’ll put him in an excellent spot of competing for the series championship as he’d be locked into the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 16, which he said it’ll be a huge deal because it’ll help his No. 18 team focus on their Homestead truck instead of taking bolder changes at the next two circuits held at Texas Motor Speedway and ISM Raceway.
“That’d be huge,” Gragson said. “Not saying that we wouldn’t have to worry about Texas or Phoenix, but we’d be able to work a lot more on our Homestead truck and kind of have those cards laid out in our favor I feel like and could put a little bit more time and effort into Homestead just as a whole.
“Definitely try and go and race those guys in Texas and Phoenix, but maybe take bolder chances if that was the case, but right now it’s not the case and we’re not even going to practice here. We might be 30th, we might be first there in qualifying, I don’t know how it’s going to be. Just need to work hard and focus on this weekend and if that does end up happening, then that’ll be great, but right now just got to wait in the rain, eat some hotdogs and hopefully go racing tomorrow.”
Out of the three Round of 6 circuits, Gragson said that outside of Martinsville, it’s the 1.5-mile circuit in Fort Worth that’ll be his biggest hurdle due to the passing difficulty being high as he finished 10th and led 10 laps in his last race at “The Lone Star State” June 8, a race won by Sauter.
“Texas it’s pretty hard to pass,” Gragson said. “Very slinky tight 1.5-mile racing where you can run up on to a guy and be four tenths faster than him and then get stalled out, so track position is really key there and then anything can happen here. Pretty excited about here and Phoenix. I feel like those are my best two.”
Outside of weather, Martinsville has always been notoriously known to be difficult on brakes, something that’s been immune to Gragson, which he hopes to keep it that way, but is self-aware that it could happen and will play a huge role Saturday. At the same time, he feels that it isn’t much of a concern for the Truck Series because the race distance is 131.5 miles to Cup’s 263.
“Knock on wood, but I’ve never had a brake overheating issue here and hopefully we don’t have that come tomorrow’s race,” Gragson said. “I feel like in the Truck Series, you’re not really running out of brake pedal as much as you might get them hotter and they get the tire hotter, but I don’t really feel like you can run out of brakes in the Truck Series.
“I think with 200 laps, 250 laps that we run in the spring, you can’t really go through brakes like you would maybe in a 500 lap race like in the Cup cars. It’s pretty much just balls to the wall in the Truck Series. You might run into a little damage with guys wrecking in front of you and that could create brake heat, but it’s normal temperatures as you’re going.”
With four races remaining in his Truck Series career as Gragson will make the move to the Xfinity Series next season for JR Motorsports and replacing the soon-to-be retiring Elliott Sadler, it’ll be his final race at Martinsville for quite some time as the series hasn’t run at the “Paperclip” since 2006.
Gragson insisted that he’ll have his Martinsville fix by playing video games, but before making that comment, he suddenly realized this epiphany after seeing race fans outside in the rain, eager to get some sort of on-track action.
“I was thinking about that. I saw some fans outside – it’s crazy there’s fans already out here in the pouring rain,” Gragson said. “That’s just how much they love Martinsville.
“I was thinking man, it’s going to be cool coming back next year and then I was thinking, I’m like oh, wait, I’m not. I don’t know. Hopefully I can run a truck race here. I don’t know. Chris (Knight) don’t put that down as Noah is running a truck race. It’s not the thing. It might be on NASCAR Heat 3, I don’t know. I think that’d be cool.”
Qualifying will be the only on-track activity for the Truck Series before the 250-lap contest, taking place at 10 a.m. EST. as Gragson will eye for his sixth pole of the season, giving him an early advantage as he’s focused on scoring his second win of the season that’ll get him a step closer of giving Kyle Busch Motorsports his third series title in four years.