JR Motorsports driver Noah Gragson might have been down at one point during Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but in the end, he was never really out.
Gragson started seventh and led 36 laps early on including a third-place finish in Stage 1. But shortly that ending of Stage 1, the engine in Gragson’s Chevy began to sour. Those watching on the front stretch could hear a different tune from under the hood and it seemed as though Gragson’s chance at a win was over.
Turns out it wasn’t.
Gragson fell two laps down and it seemed as though it would only be a matter of time before the inevitable cloud of smoke from a blown engine would envelope the Gragson machine and he would be watching the race from atop a pit box.
That, however, didn’t happen.
Gragson pitted, the hood came up, and suddenly he was charging through the field. By lap 119, Gragson had made up his two laps, and continued moving forward. As the laps wound down Gragson was in the top 10, and might have been in contention for the win, but by that point his JR Motorsports teammates Justin Allgaier and eventual race winner Josh Berry were too far ahead of the rest of the field.
Only six cars finished on the lead lap; Gragson was fourth among them. And he did it with only seven of the eight cylinders working in his engine.
Gragson said the issue started about lap 30. The team tried to repair it but only made it worse. Gragson pitted again and the team was at least able to get the engine back to where it was.
“I could run the fence really well, enter up high,” Gragson said. “Probably the only guy who could enter that high in turn 1. Running really good lap times through the corner, a lot of speed, but then they pulled away on the straightaway. It took awhile be we just never quit.
“We felt like if we had full power, all cylinders, we probably could have run up there and been competitive for the win,” he added. “But we'll take a fourth for all the things after this race.”
2014 Cup champion Kurt Busch had a similar race at Bristol in 2004 when the Ford he was racing for Roush at the time, also lost a cylinder. He defied his crew chief’s call to pit with 30 laps to go, stayed out held off Rusty Wallace, and won.
“But at a short track, you can kind of pull that off,” Busch said Saturday. “At a big track, that's impressive, for Noah (Gragson) to be able to run that speed and get a top five.”