Xfinity Series pole sitter, Noah Gragson, nervous but excited looking at Darlington Raceway’s Turn 1

By Jerry Jordan, Editor

DARLINGTON, S.C. – It’s been over two months since the NASCAR Xfinity Series was on the racetrack, so what’s two more days, according to pole-sitter, Noah Gragson, who admitted he was a little nervous thinking about driving into Turn 1 at Darlington Raceway but he is also ready for action.

“I guess two months of waiting, what’s another couple of days,” Gragson said, as he joked with a small group of reporters. “I wish NASCAR would just finish the race right now and give the finishing order off the starting order. That would be a lot easier, you know.”

Gragson explained that NASCAR is lucky to get back to the track because of its uniqueness in the sports world. And for him, it was what he needed after two months without racing due to the nationwide shutdown spawned after the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

“It feels great to be back in the pits,” he said. “Everybody is putting their hearts and souls and livelihoods to get back to the racetrack and stay as healthy as possible. Fortunately, everybody has been working really, really, hard just trying to follow all the guidelines. We are lucky to be able to get back to the racetrack. We are a unique sport to be able to be having a live sporting event during this time so it is great to be back. I wish I could go up and shake people’s hands but like I said, the health and safety of everybody is our priority right now trying to keep everybody safe and second is to get back on the racetrack.

“I was extremely anxious. I could not wait to just get back in the race car. I was really nervous just driving down here what that feeling is going to be like.”

Gragson said unlike at Daytona International Speedway, where drivers get to turn laps and have practice prior to going all out on the track for the race, this is different. There is no practice, no sitting in the race car, no qualifying, no chance to learn a line or knock the rust off and no lap being turned before its time to race into Turn 1. The break for due to the COVID-19 pandemic was 74 days if the green fell on Tuesday.

The off-season following the checkered flag at Homestead-Miami Speedway was only 17 days longer. But, as Gragson pointed out, drivers were able to run in lower-tier racing series, visit their race shops, get properly fitted for seats and keep their skills sharp. Aside from a couple of visits to the Chevrolet simulator and iRacing, which he admitted isn’t his strong point, he was going into Darlington blind.

“Here, we don’t get any practice laps, no qualifying so it’s going to be really difficult,” Gragson said. “We saw some guys in the Cup race who were pretty tame at the start and we saw some guys who were pretty aggressive and that’s what I am, kind of, nervous about. We’re lucky to have a great starting position being on the pole in our No. 9 car but, yeah, still a lot of butterflies. And I know once I get that helmet on and I make a lap around this place to get back in that rhythm and feel comfortable again, it will feel natural but right now, it is pretty nerve-racking.

“I’ve been really, just cycling these last two weeks trying to stay away from people as much as possible. I’ve been doing some iRacing, I am not too good on there but I think just the repetition of making laps no matter is a good thing. I was able to go to the Chevy simulator a couple of days and just get back in the swing of things and knock a little bit of rust off. Still, like I said, I am pretty nervous coming into it.”

All he could do is walk around the racetrack and try to get a feel for where the racing line would be – an effort to be “as prepared as possible for the race.”

As the rains fell Tuesday and continued to push the expected start time of the race back even further, Gragson sat in his personal vehicle and played Xbox. A little Madden, some NBA 2K, Tony Stewart Sprint Car and SuperCross 3 helped pass the hours until NASCAR made the decision at 8:01 p.m. to postpone the race and try it again Thursday at noon.

Now, it’s another two days before Gragson hits the track. And another two days for the Xfinity rookies to continue facing the reality – they have zero experience at The Lady in Black. It’s a fact Gragson will be thinking about as he leads the field to the green and will inevitably come up on slower cars as he works his way around the track. He just hopes everyone will take it easy and not overdrive their talent in the early laps.

“I would be a lot more nervous if I were in one of those rookies’ shows, not being able to test, not being able to qualify and have zero laps when they tell you to go balls to the wall, wide-open into Turn 1, I ‘d be pretty nervous and pretty sketched out, so I feel nervous myself but I feel a lot more comfortable than those guys. I think the main focus through all the competitors, in my opinion, needs to be we just need to make it through the first handful of laps – the first five or 10 laps and not myself in any bad positions, and I hope the other guys are thinking that way, too. If you get too aggressive here and you’ve never been here, or even if you have been here, and you get too aggressive, things can go wrong in an instant.”

Winning at Darlington isn’t easy. With nicknames like ‘The Lady in Black’ and ‘The Track Too Tough to Tame,’ the 1.33-mile egg-shaped track has handed out ‘Darlington Stripes” to the best of NASCAR’s drivers.

“I know when I strap that helmet on, I am going to feel comfortable and ready to get going wide-open through Turns 1 and 2,” Gragson said.

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