By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
The worst feeling in the world for race car driver is being forced to sit out a race, especially just hours before the green flag drops. This was the case for Noah Gragson, who wasn’t medically cleared to compete in Saturday’s Gander Outdoors 150 at Pocono Raceway in due to flu-like symptoms.
Gragson had battled a stomach bug the past few days and it initially didn’t stop the 20-year-old from being fastest during Friday’s practice session. However, just before qualifying this morning, he required medical attention on pit road. This concern made the man sitting second in points unable to make a qualifying attempt, and ultimately ended in him sitting out the race.
After the announcement was made, Gragson made a statement on Twitter regarding missing his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series start:
Unable to race today in Pocono due to Doctor not clearing me to race. If it were up to me, I’d be in my @safelite Tundra. I tried everything in my power to race. Thanks to everyone who supports me in my career. I feel like I’ve let everyone down. But respect NASCARs decision.
— Noah Gragson (@NoahGragson) July 28, 2018
Despite being sidelined, the Kansas winner will be granted a medical waiver, keeping him playoff eligible with only two more regular season races remaining after Saturday.
This sudden news put Kyle Busch, who own’s Gragson’s truck, in a tough spot and find a quick replacement. Busch said during final Cup practice that it would be a former Kyle Busch Motorsports driver, and it was 2015 Truck Series champion Erik Jones.
Jones came from the rear of the field to battle his teammate and boss in the closing laps. Lap traffic would hinder his shot of scoring his eighth career series win, and he had to settle for second while Busch scored his 51st Truck Series win, tying NASCAR Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday, Jr. for most career wins.
Jones said it was fun relieving Gragson in the No. 18 Safelite Auto Glass Toyota Tundra after having a competitive truck.
“Yeah, I mean, it was definitely a surprise, you know? I didn’t think that I’d be running a Truck race today, but it was fun,” said Jones. “Hoped in after final practice and got the final fitment done in the seat and everything and it – it was a little snug. Noah’s (Gragson) a little smaller than me I believe, but it was close and we went out and the truck was great.
“I asked Rudy (Fugle, Gragson’s crew chief) – I said, ‘You know, driving this thing today, did you at least give me a pretty good truck,’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, I think it’s pretty fast,’ so definitely had good speed and I think really if we could have gotten out front at the end, we would have – we probably could held Kyle off, but just got stuck on the bottom on that restart and lost a couple spots and just took too long to get through traffic to go up and challenge, but it was a fun day.”
Jones added that he was aware of Gragson’s illness, and initially intended of watching some of the race after taking a nap. After getting the word that he’ll replace him, it changed his mindset and had to focus on the impromptu race.
“I think I first found out maybe after the first practice – just before second practice, final practice today – but, I mean, yeah. You’re definitely changing your mindset getting into a Truck race,” said Jones. “I was planning on probably going back and taking a nap and catching the end of the Truck race, so, you know, had to really kind of reset and try to think back.
“I don’t really have any notes with me here on Truck racing and had to think back to what I did here I guess three years ago in the trucks, so just trying to remember that and, you know, talked to Kyle a little before the race, looked at some old data that I had from a test here a few years ago and just tried to refresh my memory and get in the mode of what we had to do.”
The opening stage saw Jones wasting not time to reach the top-10 and crossed the line in fourth after 15 laps.
“I knew it was going to be a little challenging coming from the back and obviously not being in the truck all day I didn’t know how it drove,” Jones on working his way to the front in Stage 1. “I don’t know how Noah drives his trucks and so it was a lot of things that go through your head, but we had a great truck. We fired off and it was very quick and we were able to get up to the front pretty fast.”
Once the second stage got underway, Jones picked pocketed by a few more trucks to take the lead away from Busch on Lap 27. It would be the only lap he’d led as he made a pit stop before the stage ended, and was the highest KBM truck in 18th.
Jones restarted the final stage in third, having to deal with race leader Dalton Sargeant and Joe Nemechek, who started in the front row. Once the green flag dropped, Jones struggled to get the lead and had to settle for third, behind new leader Busch and Sargeant.
As the race came to a close, Jones passed Sargeant for second and was among the fastest trucks in the field, cutting Busch’s second-plus lead to just tenths of a second. Jones saw an opportunity with nine laps to go on the Long Pond Straightaway, and went low to pass Busch.
However, Jones intervened as the lapped truck of Todd Peck got in their way, and Busch held on to the race lead. More lap traffic and a tight truck diminish Jones’ chances of winning and came 1.469 seconds short of winning as a relief driver.
In victory lane, Busch said if there was any truck that would’ve given him a run for his money, it was the No. 18 Toyota regardless of who would’ve wind up driving it Saturday.
“Yeah, they were – they had a better truck than us here this weekend – the 18 did,” said Busch. “Rudy and those guys are amazing. They do such a great job and I knew Erik was going to be fast in that truck and I knew Noah was going to be fast in that truck. They were the ones that we had to beat, you know? So I wish we were a tick faster, but obviously being that little bit slower we put on a better show.”
Jones said lapped trucks was his best shot of beating Busch, but was forced to check up and had to give him room to avoid any potential carnage.
“Well, I was pretty tight in the last run to begin with and had to use up a little bit to get through some traffic and had to use up a little bit more on the right front to get to Kyle. I saw the lapped trucks and they gave me the opportunity to get there,” said Jones. “I was like, ‘Well, this is going to be my shot. Probably my only shot to get to the lead and if we can get to the lead, I think we can hold him off,’ and we came within about six inches of doing it and, you know, I had to kind of check up. There was four lapped trucks.
“We passed three of them on the straightaway and there was one more in the tunnel turn and I had to check up on the bottom or run him over, which I wasn’t going to do, so – and Kyle was still at my quarter. I had to give him space and it was – you know, it was a close moment. I knew that was probably out shot. I used up a lot of the truck just to make that one move. I was trying to save for that moment hoping that he was going to catch them weird and it just didn’t work out.”
Despite finishing second, Jones hasn’t spoken to Gragson, and said post-race that he understood his ‘no quit’ mentality, and why it’s tough for a driver to sit out.
“I haven’t yet. You know, I don’t know Noah (Gragson) very well. Obviously, he was not feeling well today, so I haven’t talked to him. I hope he’s doing alright and feeling better,” Jones on Gragson’s condition. “It sounds like he was from Twitter, so I know he wanted to race today and he obviously had a pretty good truck to do it with, so it’s always as a driver hard to – I’ve been fortunate enough to not have to watch my car race without me in it, but I know it’s got to be a tough feeling to have to sit there and watch your race car go around without you in it.”
Gragson retained his runner-up spot in the standings, but now trailing eighth-place finisher Johnny Sauter by 65 points heading into the Corrigan Oil 200 at Michigan International Speedway on August 11.