Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Is Noah Gragson’s Comeback Ahead of Schedule?

1. Noah Gragson Cashing in big so far at SHR

Seasons are not won in the first three races of the season, but the foundation that is laid within that space can set the tone for what’s to come.

It’s impossible to see the future. If it were, then we could post winning lottery numbers here each week and make off like Biff Tannen in Back To The Future Part III.

But one of many things that the past few weeks have shown is that if there is an early candidate for comeback driver of the year award, it cannot be anybody except for Noah Gragson.

NASCAR is full of stories of drivers who may not have had things pan out in an early-career opportunity, but make more of a second chance. Joey Logano and Daniel Suarez are prime examples.

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For a Stewart-Haas Racing team in transition that could not even get Kevin Harvick past the opening round of last year’s playoffs in the NASCAR Cup Series, Gragson has been a shining bright spot.

After finishing 20th, four laps down in the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, he followed that up by finishing ninth at Daytona International Speedway. Gragson’s No. 10 team probably showed more of its grit from an off-track standpoint when it came to Atlanta Motor Speedway, showing resolve in the face of a 36th-place finish and absorbing being penalized during that same weekend.

Gragson and teammate Ryan Preece were penalized at Atlanta for improper roof deflectors. Being dinged for a penalty like that can stunt the momentum for teams looking to turn things around, but Las Vegas Motor Speedway showed the opposite with Gragson running consistently in the top 10, going on to finish sixth. It was his best finish since a part-time effort in the summer of 2022 at Daytona.

Las Vegas’ place on the schedule frames it as the start of the real season. If that’s true, then Gragson’s rebound may be ahead of schedule, and that may be just what the doctor ordered for SHR.

2. Pit Stops Still Holding 23XI Back

23XI Racing has become known for multiple things in its short existence. Most of them are good, but one apparently refuses to go away.

Tyler Reddick came up one position short of a win on Sunday (March 3) at Las Vegas, and it didn’t take him long to point a finger at the reason why in some comments not suitable for small children.

Reddick’s candor aside, it draws attention to something that has plagued the Nos. 23 and 45 teams – lack of consistency on pit road. It’s been said time and time again, that missteps on pit road have cost Bubba Wallace and Reddick, better finishes, not to mention chances at a race win. Time will tell whether or not Sunday was a fluke for the No. 45 team.

If it’s not, then it will remain something that could be the difference between 23X1 being good or great going forward.

3. Don’t Fault Wallace for Aiding Reddick

Usually, a driver being 13 laps off the pace would not figure into how things unfold during a race. Wallace was among the exceptions on Sunday.

After a promising run had its hopes find a dead end, Wallace spent the rest of the way logging laps. But that did not stop the No. 23 from being a factor.

Credit 23XI for using the fact that Wallace still had a fast car to help him hook up with Reddick in stage two, giving the latter a good draft push in pursuit of race leader Kyle Larson. The teammate gamesmanship was not done. In the closing laps, Wallace had a chance to blatantly interfere in the race’s outcome but thankfully held his line allowing Larson and Reddick to fight it out for the win.

Was what 23XI did illegal? No.

Has it been done by other teams before, especially when it comes to drafting? Yes.

It’s very much in the gray area of what’s allowed, and until NASCAR mandates that cars multiple laps down cannot be on the track in the closing laps, then what you saw Sunday will continue.

See also
The Big 6: Questions Answered After Kyle Larson Dominates in Sin City

4. Is it Postseason or Bust for Ty Gibbs?

There are two ways to carry over one season’s strong finish to the next. Sometimes, a few flashes of success can be just that.

At other times, success from one year to another is no fluke.

Ty Gibbs is a prime example. Gibbs was a classic case last season of a driver who picked up the pace to make up for lost ground in the summer, but the hole was too deep to climb from.

Now? He’s raising the expectation for the No. 54, and it’s starting to be postseason or bust for the second-year Cup driver. Through three races, Gibbs is third in the points. Most impressive? Sunday’s top five came despite his car lacking first gear.

It’s easy to finish in the top five when everything goes well. But do it when things are not always great? That’s an even bigger statement and a reason that Gibbs is turning the corner with a clear road to the postseason.

5. Solid Showings Should Not Be Good Enough for No. 9 Team

One thing is abundantly clear so far in 2024: two teams at Hendrick Motorsports are pretty good, and the other two are working to figure out how to get to the same level.

Obviously, Larson and William Byron are performing at a high level.

One on the other end of things is Chase Elliott.

The No. 9 has been solid. His average finish of 13.7 places him within the top 10 and seventh in points. Elliott has not been overpowering, and if what we saw Sunday continues, expect the No. 9 to hover around the top 10. Assuming that there are not more than 16 race winners, that should theoretically be enough for an eventual postseason spot, but that’s not a gamble that any team with the resources of HMS needs to take.

Here’s the problem. Elliott is a driver capable of leading a lot of laps and winning multiple races. That does not line up with being just good enough to get to the postseason.

When expectations are in place, they have to be met, especially with the perception of resources that should make it possible.

Simply stated, the No. 9 should be on the same level as Larson and Byron. If not, then it could eventually call for someone besides Alan Gustafson atop the No. 9 pit box.

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Back to the Future 2 is where Biff makes all the money….. ;)

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