HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Noah Gragson ripped off his driving gloves after Friday night’s Ford EcoBoost 200, coming up some five seconds short of a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship.
Consoling hugs followed, first from team owner Kyle Busch and next from Rudy Fugle, the crew chief for his No. 18 Toyota. Busch had implored his 20-year-old driver over the team radio: “It’s all up to you, brother,” before the final green-flag run, then watched the closing stage of the season finale atop the pit box with arms crossed.
Gragson finished third at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Friday night behind eventual champ Brett Moffitt and runner-up Grant Enfinger, the pole winner. He’d led twice for 34 laps, racing hard with Moffitt in a slice-dice battle for the top spot before the final exchange of pit stops placed a buffer between the two. Though initially frustrated with the result, Gragson kept a measure of perspective on the season-ending event.
“Just very fortunate to be racing for a championship. Trying to soak it all in,” said Gragson, who thanked his Kyle Busch Motorsports team on the cool-down lap. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so just really fortunate, really thankful for everyone who supports me.”
Gragson closed the year with one win (Kansas in May) and a series-best six pole positions. He qualified third Friday, fastest among the four championship contenders, and remained among the top five virtually all night.
He slowed with what he surmised was a deflating tire, prompting his final trip to pit road on the 101st of 134 laps. Fugle said that Gragson lost small increments of time entering and exiting the pits, plus precious ground during the stop itself. Even with Busch’s prodding, Gragson was unable to mount a final charge.
“That’s just pretty much just me driving 100 percent, driving my nuts off pretty much,” said Gragson, who quickly regained his sense of humor by the time he reached the post-race press conference. “I mean, it’s tough, but I guess it just comes down to experience, making good … I gave it all I got. I mean, I had my tongue hanging out. I wasn’t worn. I wasn’t falling out of the seat, but I just burned the front tires off of it.”
The season finale was Gragson’s swan song with the KBM organization. He announced in September that he would move to the Xfinity Series with JR Motorsports, replacing the retiring Elliott Sadler with a multiyear deal in the No. 1 Chevrolet.
Gragson will be succeeded in KBM’s No. 18 Toyota by Harrison Burton, but he had fond words for the team upon his departure. “It’s just a bummer, but hey, no bad days, right?” he quipped. In the end, both driver and crew chief expressed appreciation for their growth through the 2018 season.
“This is what this team’s been built to do,” Fugle said. “It’s not really said very much, but this team’s won five owner’s championships in a row until this year, So owner’s, drivers … doesn’t matter. We’ve won lots of races together. This year was a little bit down on race wins, but we led as many laps as we ever had and then it was really strong. We didn’t close races the way we needed to, but really proud of how we got here and how we performed here and what we’re going to do going forward.”