Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: Cup Series Rookies Steal the Show at Talladega

For Ty Gibbs and Noah Gragson, the final finishing order from Sunday’s (April 23) race at Talladega Superspeedway will never tell the whole story. The pair of NASCAR Cup Series rookies wound up 31st and 32nd respectively, both falling victim to late race issues. Yet Sunday’s race also marked the first time both drivers looked capable of scoring a victory at NASCAR’s highest level. Even if Kyle Busch stole the victory in the end, Gibbs and Gragson stole the show.

Up to this point, neither one of the 2023 rookies has made much noise. Gibbs finished midpack for the first few races of the season before quietly stringing together four consecutive top-10 finishes. Even so, he had led zero laps this season prior to Talladega. Gragson has been struggling mightily in his first full-time season. His only finish better than 20th is a 12th-place result at Atlanta Motor Speedway last month. Despite featuring two drivers who battled down to the wire for last year’s NASCAR Xfinity Series title, the Gibbs versus Gragson showdown for Cup Series Rookie of the Year has been a non-story so far.

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Yet Talladega favors underdogs as much as any track on the Cup Series circuit. During the race’s final stage, it looked like Gibbs or Gragson could have pulled off the upset. Gibbs started in the top five and fell back early, but he was able to work his way back to the front during the second half of the race with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates. Gibbs often found himself leading one of the long drafting lines and did a superb job holding his position at the front of the pack.

Gragson also emerged as a potential contender late in the race, drafting with anyone and everyone who could get him to the front of the field. His only major mistake was a botched bump draft to leader Harrison Burton, a move which sent the No. 21 car spinning to bring out a caution on lap 142. Gragson himself escaped with no damage and, like Gibbs, stayed among the front runners as the laps ticked away.

So, what went wrong for the two rookies? As so often happens, the complexion of the race changed when a wreck back in the pack brought out a caution with five laps to go. This put Gragson and Gibbs, in particular, in an unenviable position. Neither of them has much experience with Cup Series overtime restarts, and it was obvious that the aggression level would bump up a notch during a two-lap run to the finish. Additionally, most of the leaders were trying to save fuel, and the prospect of an overtime restart was going to put everyone’s fuel mileage right on the edge.

The options for the Nos. 54 and 42 teams were to pit and effectively give up a shot at victory, or to stand and fight with their rookie drivers and hope for the best. Both teams stayed out. Given NASCAR’s win-and-you’re-in playoff rules, it was the right call. However, this time fortune did not favor the bold.

On the first overtime attempt, Gragson restarted first on the outside lane. He got a huge push from Ross Chastain, allowing the No. 42 to take the lead. His lead was brief. As Gragson began to pull away, he drifted a bit too high at the entrance to turn 2. Chastain made a bold move to try and squeeze between Gragson and Aric Almirola. Gragson tried to close the gap too late and sideswiped Chastain. This contact caused Gragson to lose control and slam nose first into the outside wall, setting off a larger crash behind him. His day was done.

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“It’s kind of my first time racing for a win, really in the top five and top 10,” Gragson said after the race. “So, it’s a lot different how those guys are [compared to] where we’ve been running so far this year. [I] just got to go back and look [at the replay]. I kind of expected the [No.] 1 to stay with me and push me, but he split me three-wide. I just got to go back and look and learn. Just figure out what I can do to be better and not put myself in a position like that again.”  

Gibbs was still in the top 10 as the caution flew, but Gragson’s crash set up another overtime restart. As the field approached the green flag for the second attempt, the No. 54 suddenly pulled out of line. Gibbs’ fuel tank had run dry, and his shot at victory was over too.

In the short term, both rookies have little to show for their efforts. However, it will be interesting to watch the two of them going forward. Both drivers got their best taste yet of racing at the front of the field at NASCAR’s highest level.

Sure, Gibbs and Gragson did a lot of winning in the Xfinity Series. The two of them combined for 15 wins in last year’s 33-race season. But competing in the Cup Series is a much tougher challenge. Consider how the Xfinity race at Talladega last weekend featured a whopping 10 caution flags – nine of them for accidents. A total of 16 drivers failed to finish due to crashes, and only a handful that made it to the checkered flag were not damaged in some way. Compare that to the Cup race where, until the lap 142 caution, all 38 starters were still on track.

The days of rookies arriving in the Cup Series and making an immediate splash have long since ended. It is much more typical for new drivers to take a few years to get up to speed. Gibbs and Gragson will not be contending for wins weekly in 2023, but both made good steps toward learning the ropes of the Cup Series at Talladega. Perhaps Sunday’s race will finally spark the Rookie of the Year battle for which fans had hoped.

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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