DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – One year after Michael Annett earned his first NASCAR Xfinity Series win during the season opener at Daytona Int’l Speedway, Noah Gragson replicated the feat on Saturday afternoon.
Gragson, who endured a solid but sometimes rough rookie season in 2019, drafted his way to the front during a three-lap sprint to the finish in the NASCAR Racing Experience 300 and then held off the charging Toyotas of Harrison Burton and Timmy Hill in the final set of corners to secure the victory.
A hard crash on the backstretch during the final lap, ironically enough involving defending race winner Annett, ultimately forced officials to call for the caution as the leaders raced through turn four to the finish line.
At that moment, the field was frozen and Gragson’s triumph was assured, handing the 21-year-old Las Vegas native the trophy in his 37th Xfinity Series start.
The sprint to the finish was set up by a major pileup in turn three on lap 114, when a block from then-leader Chase Briscoe to cover the top spot from Gragson stacked up the outside lane and led to contact between Austin Cindric and Jeb Burton, who were just behind the leading pair.
Cindric’s bump to Burton’s unstable Chevrolet sent the No. 8 careening out of control entering the banking, the beginning to a massive crash that saw many of the frontrunners collected in the process.
Among those eliminated in the melee were both Burton and Cindric, as well as Brett Moffitt, Josh Williams, CJ McLaughlin, Jeremy Clements and Caesar Bacarella.
Following a nearly-eight minute red flag, the field realigned for the final restart with Briscoe and Gragson side by side in the front row, while Brandon Jones was behind Briscoe and Harrison Burton was the pusher for Gragson’s machine.
Racing resumed with a relative lack of energy for the first of the three laps, seeing the front pair stay wheel to wheel for the entire 2.5-mile distance before Burton got close enough to Gragson’s back bumper to push him clear of Briscoe coming off the second corner on lap 199.
Crossing under the white flag, it was Gragson ahead of Burton and Hill, and that was how the order stayed among the top three after Annett went around off of Brandon Brown’s front bumper in a hard shunt down the backstretch.
Once the yellow lights flickered on, Gragson was able to cruise to the checkered flag, locking himself into the playoffs in the process.
Gragson then capped his day with a huge burnout and fence climb as he celebrated in the moment and soaked in the emotions of winning at the World Center of Racing.
“I’m speechless right now,” Gragson said in victory lane. “I didn’t think this (moment) would come. But there’s so many people who have made this (moment) possible for me, from Dustin Ash back at home, to the O’Hanley family and Jefferson Pitts Racing … Kyle Busch Motorsports, just everybody who’s helped me get to this point. I spent a lot of time with Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. this week, talked to him for about two hours, because I wanted to be a better speedway racer. He told me to go have fun – wreckers or checkers – that I had to manage my gaps, be there at the end and just go lead the damn thing.
“That’s what we did, and dang, it feels good! I’m so thankful. Thank you to all the fans. We did it!”
Working through the final lap, Gragson actually got out to what some would consider “too big” of a lead as he went down the backstretch and headed toward home.
The young star wasn’t worried, however, even as Burton and Hill were steaming forward in the final half-lap. He just put his head down and focused on Earnhardt’s advice in the waning moments.
“I saw myself get pushed out in the mirror, and just tried to work all race long managing how far out in front of the car behind me I got,” Gragson noted. “If it weren’t for this Hendrick power, I don’t think we would have been able to get here to victory lane.
“This is what it’s all about, man. What a day.”
Of interesting note, Gragson’s win marked the seventh different Daytona Xfinity Series win for JR Motorsports as an organization, all coming with different drivers.
In addition to Gragson and Annett, Regan Smith (2014-1), Kasey Kahne (2014-2), Chase Elliott (2016), William Byron (2017) and Tyler Reddick (2018) have also won for JR Motorsports at Daytona in the past.
Burton and Hill finished second and third, respectively, followed by a third Toyota in Brandon Jones.
Briscoe’s Stewart-Haas Racing-prepared Ford Mustang completed the top five after leading the race with two laps to go.
Justin Haley, Brown, Ray Black Jr., Ryan Sieg and Alex Labbe were the balance of the top 10.
Burton (26 laps led), Justin Allgaier (23) and first-time pole winner Myatt Snider (22) combined to lead 71 of the 120 laps in Saturday’s race, but none of the three made it to the checkered flag after each being involved in hard crashes throughout the day.
The NASCAR Xfinity Series season continues Feb. 22 at Las Vegas (Nev.) Motor Speedway, Gragson’s home track.
To view complete race results, advance to the next page.