On a Saturday afternoon when driving standards and intentional contact were the talk of the sport, it was a refreshing surprise to see an overtime battle between two of stock car racing’s most notorious talents resolve with a good, clean pass for the win. Ultimately, it was Xfinity Series rising star Ty Gibbs scoring his fourth win of 2022 via a last-lap pass on defending Cup Series champion Kyle Larson in the Henry 180 at Road America.
Larson, driving a No. 17 Camaro prepared by Hendrick Motorsports, had won both stages, and took the white flag with Gibbs’ No. 54 right at his bumper. Gibbs got a run out of the hard braking zone in turn one, but Larson threw a last-second block on the downhill straight, cutting across the track and into the nose of the No. 54.
And Ty Gibbs lifted.
Larson’s move compromised his entry into turn three, and Gibbs swept by on the inside into the lead. Larson dogged him the rest of the way around Road America’s four miles, but Gibbs never left the door open.
The 19-year-old phenom’s celebratory burnout was worthy of coming out on top in a duel with the Cup Series’ best, but speaking post-race to NBC’s Parker Kligerman, it was something else on Gibbs’ mind. He said, in front of everyone: “I need to earn respect back, and that’s what I’m doing.”
For a driver whose aggression and full-contact style has made him few friends in the garage this year, Gibbs’ resolution to improve that reputation seems to be paying off already. Asked about Gibbs’ driving, runner-up Larson responded, “he ran me clean, I was going to run him clean.”
So what to make then, of Noah Gragson? Like Gibbs, the driver of the JR Motorsports No. 9 has made few friends during his time in the Xfinity Series and more than his fair share of enemies, but a run-in with Alpha Prime Racing’s Sage Karam while fighting for sixth place on lap 25 prompted some serious conversation.
Midway through stage two, Gragson entered turn one to the inside of Karam’s No. 45. Both drivers went for the same patch of real estate, and the No. 45 was sent out of the groove. Karam fought back, braking late into turn three and bouncing off of Gragson, sending the No. 9 into the curb to temporarily regain the spot. A split second later, the No.9 car lurched hard to the right on the straightaway, sending both cars spinning at the entrance to the Sargento bridge. The smoke and dirt blocked visibility for the rest of the pack, and Landon Cassill, Josh Bilicki, Tyler Reddick, Brandon Brown, and Myatt Snyder were among the innocent victims of the carnage.
All told, Gragson’s attempt at payback collected 13 cars, and could have been much worse. Brandon Brown, whose No. 68 had struck a stationary Tyler Reddick, climbed from his mangled Camaro and appeared to collapse by the side of the track. With assistance from the AMR safety team (and fellow driver Myatt Snider) Brown removed his helmet and left the scene by ambulance. He has since been checked and released from the care center, and reported on Twitter that he was suffering shortness of breath and pain in the groin as a result of the crash.
With the move from Gragson so sudden and blatant NBC broadcast crew wondered briefly if he’d suffered some kind of mechanical failure, and the resulting collision severely damaging many cars from the Xfinity Series’ underfunded mid-pack, it may have been expected that Gragson would suffer some kind of penalty for his actions. Incredulously, there was no word from NASCAR, and Gragson finished the race in eighth place.
With NASCAR’s current self-policing approach to driving standards, it will be up to the rest of the field to hand out consequences to Gragson. Karam, an open-wheel racer who makes only the occasional start in NASCAR, said to NBC outside the infield care center:
“he just flat-out turned to the right out of pure frustration. . . you can’t be that heated while you’re driving a race car and unfortunately he let his emotions get the better of him today. . . he walks around like he’s the big man on campus and then goes and does stuff like that . . . he’s not a good role model.
Asked if he’d speak to Gragson after the race, Karam offered: “I think a lot of people have spoken to Noah, I don’t think Noah’s going to change. In the short time I’ve been in Xfinity racing here, I have not heard a lot of great things about Noah and he has not shown a lot of great racing with me on track, so I’m not sure if we can change Noah. Noah needs to take a look in the mirror”
Bob Pockrass reported after the race that Gragson has been called to the NASCAR hauler.
If it weren’t the driving standards controversy, perhaps another controversy would have been the talk of NASCAR Twitter after the race. With three laps remaining in the first stage, a brake issue for Our Motorsports’ Brett Moffitt sent the No. 02 Chevy into the gravel trap at turn five. With his Camaro beached, the first caution flag of the day waved. A short tow later and the track was clear.
However, NASCAR didn’t have the time to implement its full caution-flag policy and still go racing before the stage end, so they unfortunately made the call to extend the caution laps until the stage could be completed. Normally, this wouldn’t be noticeable, however Road America’s course is over four miles long. Stage-break cautions already slow down the action in Elkhart Lake, and adding more caution laps is simply excruciating.
Whether it’s the rules controversy, the lack-of-rules controversy, or an electrifying battle for the win among two of the wildest wheelmen in racing, the NASCAR Xfinity Series has definitely given fans something to talk about.
After Gibbs and Larson, Josh Berry came home in third, a career-best road course finish. Austin Hill and Brandon Jones will certainly be happy to end up top-five after a crazy race. AJ Allmendinger recovered to sixth from a late pit penalty, and Riley Herbst, Gragson, Jeremy Clements, and Ryan Sieg rounded out the top ten.
After fighting for the lead much of the afternoon, Cole Custer suffered a brake rotor failure while running third with two laps to go, bringing out the caution and setting up the overtime finish. Custer was scored 25th at the finish, five laps down.
Featured Image sourced from Toyota Racing on Twitter