DARLINGTON, S.C. – The only real experience Noah Gragson had racing at Darlington prior to Tuesday was of the console variety.
Video game console, that is.
“I’ve only been here one time,” Gragson said. “I’ve played this track before on NASCAR video games. I actually watched a race in 2016 at the press box in Turn 3. …I watched every lap, so I learned a little bit there, but it’s way different behind the wheel.”
The NASCAR Xfinity Series driver found that out firsthand on Tuesday as he was able to take a few laps around the “Lady in Black” before speaking with the media.
“It’s a challenging racetrack overall,” Gragson said. “…The track’s worn out. You really only have half a lap where the tires are fresh and then they get worn out really, really quickly. I think that’s what makes this track so much fun. It’s just how worn out it is – you’re slipping and you’re sliding after three and four laps on the racetrack.
“So you’ve got to get right up against the wall and it’s taken me about a half a day to really figure that out and get comfortable.”
Not too comfortable as Gragson did find the wall once during his practice runs.
“I got a spin out of the way – I tagged the back of the bumper on the wall just a little bit – but overall it’s been a learning experience for me and I’m going to keep on learning for the rest of the day,” he said.
This entire season has been a learning experience for Gragson, who is in his first full year on the Xfinity Series after spending the previous two seasons on the Camping World Truck Series.
The 20-year-old picked up a pair of victories on the truck circuit, and wound up taking second place in his first Xfinity race at Richmond last year.
He’s had three top-5 finishes so far this year and seven top-10s driving the No. 9 Chevy Camaro for JR Motorsports. He currently sits in eighth place in the point standings (2,004) – 29 points behind leader Tyler Reddick.
“The beginning half of the season I was just trying to learn the team, learn the car,” Gragson said. “Going from a truck last year to moving up into the Xfinity Series with the car – it’s a new level; it’s level of driving style, it’s a new level of experience that you’re against all of those guys that you’re racing against. There’s a lot of good competition.
“We’ve been on a roll – I think we’ve had a sixth (place finish), a fourth, a second and a sixth. So, a little bit of bad luck in there where I think we could have ran a little bit better, but I’m not complaining. Overall it’s just trying to learn the team and learn every chance I get on the racetrack and off the racetrack.”
There will be an added bonus to racing in the Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200 race on Aug. 31 for Gragson. Not only will it be his first race at Darlington, but his boss, Dale Earnhardt Jr., will also be on the track with him at the same time.
“I’ve never raced Dale,” he said. “It’ll be a cool and a special moment just to be on track (with him). I’ve become buddies with him here lately. He’s taken me over to his property and kind of shown me around. He has one of his dad’s old cars that he raced; we were putting decals on that yesterday.
“It’s surreal. I went from collecting his diecasts (cars) to now he signs the paychecks. It’s pretty cool.”