If he wasn’t already a championship favorite, he is now. Noah Gragson led a dominant 114 laps on his way to his first Xfinity Series win of 2022. The driver of the #9, now approximately a pound and a half of hair lighter than last week, shredded both rear tires celebrating the victory that locked him into the Playoffs and extended his regular-season points lead. Gragson joined his crew in climbing the catchfence, a celebration started by IndyCar’s Helio Castroneves and adopted at times by Tony Stewart, but in the last few months of Xfinity Series racing, the celebration has become Noah Gragson’s signature.
The United Rentals 200 had excitement before the green flag even dropped. Ty Gibbs and Ryan Seig, who came together twice last week in Vegas, started alongside each other in row two, and shared a truck ride around the track before driver introductions. Eighteen-year-old Parker Retzlaff qualified RSS Racing’s #38 car in sixth for his series debut.
Polesitter Trevor Bayne almost failed to start, after a steering wheel killswitch issue, but his JGR team ran a relay race from the garage to pit road that allowed the Tennessee native to start on time – and since it was a “safety equipment issue,” allowed him to maintain his starting position, incredibly important for a short, 200-mile race. Anthony Alfredo was less lucky, as the same transmission issues that kept the #23 Our Motorsports team from turning a single lap in practice or qualifying sent him behind the wall for the first 50 laps of the race.
When the green flag finally dropped, Trevor Bayne wheeled the #18 Devotion Nutrition Supra to an early lead, while two- and three-wide racing characterized the rest of the top-15. Sheldon Creed bounced off the turn two wall early, after overdriving the corner trying to run the resin-treated outside line, and when his damaged #2 fell back into the clutches of an aggressive AJ Allmendinger, Creed showed his displeasure with a one-finger salute.
In the first stage, it was a JGR show up front, while the Kaulig Racing and JRM Chevys (with the exception of Noah Gragson) had to work their way up from the back of the field after poor qualifying results and unapproved adjustments.
The first caution came on lap 22 when Riley Herbst suffered a brake failure into turn three and spun into the SAFER barrier, destroying the rear, driver’s side, and front end of the #98 Monster Energy Mustang. Herbst was thankfully checked and released from the infield care center after the scary collision.
Bayne took the outside on the restart, and got loose trying to run the resin, allowing Gragson to take the race lead for the first time all day. As Daniel Suárez in the FOX booth reported, Gragson’s #9 was one adjustment short of being a good long-run car, and with four laps to go in stage one, Trevor Bayne was right on his tail. After four straight laps of crossover moves and side-by-side action, Bayne scored the stage victory by 0.06 seconds.
The start of stage two saw Brandon Jones lead Justin Allgaier, Gragson, and Sam Mayer, but the second incident of the day put the race back under caution almost immediately. Josh Berry went for a gap that didn’t exist to the inside of Ty Gibbs’ #54, and the #8 car got tight in the center of turns one and two, pushing up into the side of Gibbs’ car and spinning the Sport Clips Supra around in the middle of the field. Thankfully, everyone else was able to avoid Gibbs’ stricken car. In a quick-thinking strategy move, the #54 crew replaced Ty’s flat-spotted Goodyears with the scuffs on which he had run all of stage one. Since Xfinity teams were limited to four sets of tires, if the JGR driver could hold onto the lead lap on 45-lap scuffs, he could be back on the leaders’ strategy in stage three.
The second stage was a battle between the paint and the resin. Drivers ran either the highest outside line or put two wheels right on the apron in search of speed, and Noah Gragson found some. As Suárez predicted, Noah’s crew turned the #9 into a long-run machine, and he soon closed in on race leader Brandon Jones. After a few laps, he got by him, and wouldn’t look back, winning the second stage of the race while Jones and Allgaier had a photo finish for second place.
Justin Allgaier and Brandon Jones led the field to the stage three restart, but the two came together in turn one, sending Allgaier way up the track. Jones soon lost the lead to John Hunter Nemechek in Sam Hunt Racing’s #26, but Gragson got past both of them soon enough and disappeared into the distance.
With the entire final stage going caution-free, the race looked to be decided by green-flag pit stops. Brandon Jones, who didn’t have the speed to beat Gragson on the same strategy, made his final stop on lap 167, emerging in the race lead when Gragson got his final service two laps later. Unfortunately for Justin Allgaier, who had worked his way back into the top-five, a pass-through penalty eliminated him from contention.
But with 18 laps to go, Brandon Jones’ older tires, Noah Gragson’s faster race car, and aggressive driving from the lapped cars of Jeb Burton and Ryan Seig combined to bring the #9 right to the back bumper of the Menards #19. With 14 left, Gragson ducked below Jones through the dog-leg and once again stretched out the gap.
Unlike the last two weeks, the Xfinity Series went green to the end, and Gragson scored the largest margin of victory this season, just over 2.5 seconds between him and Brandon Jones at the line. Josh Berry came home third, with Bayne and Nemechek rounding out the top five.
Next week, Gragson will look to extend his top-three streak when the Xfinity Series will join both Cup and Trucks in racing at the newly reconfigured high-banked Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Featured image from @phoenixraceway on Twitter