WATKINS GLEN, N.Y.—Noah Gragson wasn’t his happy-go-lucky self on Friday.
Despite picking up the pace from one Xfinity Series practice to another, the driver of the No. 9 JR Motorsports wasn’t optimistic entering this weekend’s Zippo 200 at The Glen. After 40 laps between both sessions, Gragson, 21, trailed his former boss and teammate Kyle Busch by more than a second each time.
When asked whether he could beat Busch on Saturday, Gragson answered emphatically, “No chance.”
“The second-place car made a mock run and was still not even in the same area code,” Gragson said. “We’re all in Kannapolis (N.C.) and he’s up here in Watkins Glen.
“I definitely think everyone has a tremendous amount of respect for Kyle Busch and what he’s able to do. But you can only be so good on a road course and equipment is a big part of that. Maybe back in the day, you’d get your road course ringers that would come in. No doubt he’s good and no doubt do I have respect for him and there’s a couple of tenths in that. But a second-and-a-half? That’s a lot. We’re going to keep our heads up and keep on digging.”
Busch and fellow Cup driver Ryan Blaney ran first and second in first practice. Busch led Happy Hour followed by rookie Justin Haley, who jumped to second after a mock qualifying run. Road-course specialist AJ Allmendinger was in the top five on the speed chart in both sessions as was Austin Cindric who cut his teeth in sports cars.
“Those guys are too good right now,” Gragson said. “I’m not being negative about it. I’m being realistic. There’s potential to maximize our day by not making mistakes. That’s my focus. Myself and Justin (Allgaier, his JR Motorsports teammate) were separated by one-one-hundredth of a second—.015—there in practice. We’re really close, so that tells me we’re getting the max we can out of our race cars right now.
“Overall, I see a lot of comparisons. I thought I’d been going crazy on the oval side with the way we have just been this year and the feeling I need. But this weekend has me a little happier—for my own good—because I feel like I’m a pretty strong road racer. It’s what I enjoy doing. I see a lot of similarities with how we handle on the ovals and how we handle on the road courses that we need to keep working.
Graduating to the Xfinity Series has been a challenge for the Las Vegas native who has worked with driver coach Josh Wise to change his mental approach to the game. Rather than chasing wins as he did in the Gander Outdoor Truck Series, Gragson’s strategy is now “maximizing the day” for the conditions he’s in.
But no doubt, the JRM Chevrolets have not performed to the level of the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas, the Stewart-Haas Racing Fords or even the Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet piloted by points leader Tyler Reddick.
Gragson, who is currently sixth in the NXS standings, had a two-hour heart-to-heart with crew chief Dave Elenz on Thursday to reevaluate the shortcomings of the team. He also has a lunch planned for next week with team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“Right now, a victory to me will be beating my three other teammates,” Gra “Obviously, you want to win races but I’m not focussed on that right now. I’m focussed on being the best running JRM car for what we’re doing right now.”
Back of the class for Custer
Cole Custer will start from the rear of the Xfinity field at Watkins Glen after destroying the rear of the No. 00 GoBowling Ford while attempting his fifth laps in first practice on Friday.
Custer wrecked exiting Turn 1. The team pulled out a back up car and he was able to complete seven laps in the closing minutes of final practice.
“I got on those curbs coming off of (Turn) 1 and just got loose and overcorrected it into the wall,” Custer said. “Those curbs are really slick in general, and starting the weekend out without any rubber on them they’re even more slick.
“So I just misjudged it. I messed up. It can happen, but it’s really disheartening. I felt like our car was really good—and just to do that—it just really sucks. Our guys worked really hard, and I can’t thank them enough, getting the (backup) car ready.”
Custer, who is third in the NXS standings, felt fairly comfortable in the abbreviated Happy Hour.
“We did seven laps there and they were all really consistent—at least in the ballpark,” Custer said. “I thought it was pretty solid. The guys did a great job and the car handled pretty good.
“There’s going to be so much strategy and so much stuff going on. It gets so crazy in these races. Starting at the back isn’t going to be the best, but we’ll be in the mix by the end of it.”
The cart before the horse?
Sam Mayer will make his debut in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series at Bristol Motor Speedway in two weeks but the 19-year-old doesn’t even have a driver’s license yet.
Mayer, who has two wins and currently leads the K&N Pro Series East standings with one race remaining on the schedule, will pilot the No. 21 Chevrolet for GMS at Thunder Valley on August 15.
While he has a NASCAR license, Mayer has put his paperwork from the Department of Motor Vehicles on hold.
“I’ll get it early September, though,” Mayer said of his license. “I’m going to get it up in Wisconsin where I live. If we move, then I’ll probably have to get a new one and do it again, but for right now, it’ll be in Wisconsin.”
The second-generation racer from Franklin, Wisconsin will likely move South to North Carolina to advance his career. Mayer is part of the driver development program that GMS Racing announced earlier this season with JR Motorsports.
“I really can’t thank them enough—Chevrolet, Chevrolet accessories, they help me so much, just in getting fit, being ready for these longer races that we’re going to,” Mayer said. “And I’m really excited for what we’re going to do over the off season, a lot of stuff going into next year, too.”