By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Noah Gragson put the NASCAR Xfinity Series field on notice as the driver to beat during the weekend doubleheader at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but a disappointing turn of luck both days deprived the JR Motorsports standout the opportunity to be able to claim victory.
A day after dominating the Hooters 250, in which he led 83 laps and seemed destined to end the race with a checkered flag in hand before a late caution changed everything and forced him to have to settle for a third-place result, it was déjà vu all over again in Sunday’s running of the Contender Boats 250.
Starting from the rear of the field due to unapproved adjustments prior to the race, Gragson made quick work of the cars ahead of his No. 9 Chevrolet when the green flag dropped, moving up the leaderboard with ease. Only 11 laps into the 167-lap race, Gragson had cracked the top-10 and never looked back from that point on.
After finishing sixth in the first stage, Gragson advanced to the lead on lap 68 and would hold onto the point for the remainder of the second stage, taking the stage win ahead of Austin Cindric, Brandon Jones, Chase Briscoe, and his JRM teammate Daniel Hemric.
Long green flag runs in the final stage helped Gragson showcase the speed in his PUBG Mobile sponsored Chevrolet Camaro, pulling out to a four-second lead over second place at one point during the second half of the race. Leading 58 laps in the final stage, Gragson seemed to be untouchable, but once again, a late yellow would be his undoing.
With just two laps remaining, the caution flag flew for a single car incident in Turn 4, setting up a mad dash to the finish for the second day in a row.
Following a pit stop for four tires and fuel, Gragson would start the first overtime attempt in second place and dropped to third as a crash on the backstretch brought out the caution once more, leading to another attempt at a green-white-checkered finish.
When the green flag flew for the second overtime attempt, Gragson attempted a three-wide move in Turn 1, but couldn’t get the car to stick and fell back to fifth, where he would remain until the checkered flag flew.
Naturally heartbroken after having the car to beat both days with nothing to show for it, Gragson was silent on his radio after the race, with crew chief Dave Elenz providing some words of encouragement as he made his way back to the garage.
“I don’t know what to tell you, you worked extremely hard and I’m proud of our effort,” Elenz said.
Gragson leaves Homestead with the points lead, having claimed four straight top-five finishes, but even that couldn’t dampen the disappointment the 21-year old felt after getting gutpunched for two days straight in South Florida.
“I thought yesterday hurt. Man, this one is even worse,” Gragson said. “To have a late-race yellow come out while we are on pace to win the race two days in a row just stings. Our results this weekend don’t show the true strength of our team. We came out and led so many laps and should have left with two wins, but I guess that is racing.
“I’m so proud of our team today as we had to drop to the rear and fought our way to the front by the end of Stage Two and continued to lead laps all day. We’re going to take this confidence and this feeling we all have today to Talladega and hopefully come back with a checkered flag.”