AVONDALE, Ariz. — Though Noah Gragson appeared to be on his way to playing spoiler for the second time in the last three NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races, it all unraveled in the final laps Friday night at Phoenix Raceway.
Gragson had the speed to contend with Kyle Busch Motorsports teammate Christopher Bell in the second half of the Lucas Oil 150, using a lap 88 restart at the beginning of the final stage to assume command and opening up as much as two seconds over the field, but ultimately crashed out racing with Bell on a 10-lap dash to the finish.
It was clear from the initial start that Gragson would be a force, as he rocketed to the lead off of Bell’s outside and led the first nine circuits before he fell to Bell’s charging advances.
However, Gragson held on to second through both the first and second stages, setting himself up for success when the rubber hit the road to kick off the final stint to the race
Gragson started on the inside for the final stage but wasted little time in challenging Bell for the lead again, taking charge out front and opening his lead up to a full second over Bell.
With no threat from behind inside of 50 to go and carrying a cushion that expanded to two seconds over Bell, Gragson appeared to be in position for his second-career Truck Series win, but an ill-timed caution threw everything into turmoil.
A slowing Josh Reaume set up a restart with 21 laps to go, in which Austin Cindric and Ben Rhodes got together on the frontstretch racing for the final playoff berth and Rhodes crashed hard in turn one, forcing the first of three late-race red flags.
It was the next restart with 16 to go that got Gragson. While he was ahead of the five-wide scramble on the backstretch that went wrong, drawing the second red flag of the race, Bell was able to edge out the lead as the caution flag flew and take control heading into a 10-lap dash to the finish.
Despite the swap in positions, at that point, Gragson was confident in his chances.
“Yeah, I think we can close the deal,” Gragson said over the radio. “I’ve kinda struggled on the last two restarts with getting up and rolling. I think I need to just do a better job cleaning off the tires and getting some heat in them before we go back green … and I think we’ll be alright.”
At first, that statement proved true, as Gragson held his own on Bell’s inside and raced side-by-side with his teammate nearly two straight laps in an effort to wrest the lead and the win back away.
But the task ultimately proved to be too much for Gragson, as he got loose off of turn four, spun and was hit hard by Justin Haley in the driver’s side door before coming to rest on the frontstretch.
A disappointed Gragson emerged from his truck and gave a quick wave to the crowd, but certainly wanted to add a second win to his total after a very strong night in the desert.
“I had the opportunity to race for the win tonight,” Gragson later said on Twitter. “(It) didn’t end up the way I wanted it (to), but I give 100% every time on the race track. I appreciate the opportunity and support.”
The 19-year-old rookie will look to Homestead-Miami Speedway and the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 200 to rally back and cap off an impressive first season, in which he sits 10th in points with one race to go.
About the Writer
Chris Murdock is an aspiring journalist and an avid racing fan, currently serving as a Midwest and NASCAR correspondent for Race Chaser Online. Murdock is in his final semester at Ohio University, finishing a degree in Broadcast Television.
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