The year 2017 has been a challenging but rewarding experience for Noah Gragson in his first season with Kyle Busch Motorsports, navigating his rookie year in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series while continuing his effort to become a better Super Late Model driver. After much work and a few struggles, Gragson was rewarded with a fantastic month of October, getting his first major Super Late Model win in the Winchester 400 and following it up with his first Truck Series win just three weeks later at Martinsville Speedway.
Now with the season winding down, momentum is still on the side of Gragson as the Truck season concludes and the Las Vegas native prepares for his third appearance in the Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway (FL) to cap things off. But like his first season in Trucks, Gragson’s experience the past two years in Pensacola has been a learning experience.
“The first year we probably should not have made the race because it was a not well put together deal, it wasn’t really organized. We went off on a limb; it was really my first Super Late Model race,” Gragson told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “2016, we went back with Ritchie Wauters to run with him, felt like we had a decent top ten car and finished ninth, we had a little trouble. The hard part was my spotter had to leave and go back to work since it got rained out and I had Bobby Gill spotting for me. This year I’m pumped up to go back with Kyle Busch Motorsports.”
The 19-year-old Gragson admits that while he has gained Super Late Model experience, he still has much to learn. However, he believes winning a race like the Winchester 400 will give any driver confidence heading into a tricky race like the Snowball Derby.
“I hadn’t had that much success in a Super Late Model before Winchester,” Gragson admitted. “We were kind of fast at Bristol during the test sessions, but didn’t really run great there. Just haven’t had the best results on paper. It gives me a lot more confidence knowing that I can run a Super Late Model and Winchester is one of the fastest places. If we can just take Kyle Busch Motorsports’ track record from Pensacola and go back with that, they’ve been working hard with the Late Model team. If we can unload the way we unloaded at Winchester, we’ll have a shot at it.”
As usual, KBM goes in with a powerhouse team with Gragson, 2017 CARS Tour Super Late Model champion Cole Rouse, and the boss man himself, 2009 Snowball Derby winner Kyle Busch, setting the team’s three-driver lineup for the race. Gragson believes that he can draw on KBM’s past and present success to put him in a position to win on December 3.
“It’s big having teammates down there; we’ve seen that Kyle Busch Motorsports cars the last two years and thought to myself if I can get in one at the Snowball Derby and haul ass down there. They’re the guys to beat. We’ve seen William Byron, he sat on the pole last year and Christopher Bell was fast. 2015, Christopher Bell pretty much dominated that race. I know it gives me the confidence going knowing that having a couple of teammates, having Kyle there, he’s getting in the Super Late Model, Cole Rouse has had a lot of success this year. Just got to keep on working hard and stay focused down there the whole week, it’s a wild race anyone can win it, just got to go at it.”
As always, the biggest peril for the Derby lies on Friday, December 1 during the all-important qualifying night. Gragson admits that qualifying has been stressful in the past, but with KBM’s might, his apprehension lies not with making the race, but taking the pole itself.
“The first year I went there we were a mid-pack car at best; 60 cars, we were around 35th and they take 30 in qualifying. I was really stressed out because I was just hoping I could make the race my first time down there. Everything was new to me; I was really nervous. We ended up making it in 30th, but the following year I knew we were much better, the car was handling much better. I knew we were going to make it in the show because I knew we had the speed. I wasn’t really nervous at all. Going in with Kyle Busch Motorsports, I’d be really disappointed if I didn’t sit on the pole just because of the success they’ve had down there. A little bit of nerves are still there, but I don’t think it’s as bad if I went with a different team.”
This year also marks the 50th running of the Snowball Derby and that is a fact that is not lost on Gragson, along with many other of the circumstances surrounding this year’s race. While he acknowledges that they are on the table, he’s is not going to let them cloud his focus in what would be the biggest triumph of his career should he claim the Tom Dawson trophy.
“I think that would be the biggest one, the Snowball Derby. Winchester is cool because it’s a 400-lap race on a bumpy, worn out racetrack, and they’ve had it for over 40 years. But to go down and win the 50th annual Snowball Derby would be pretty big and if I can do it while beating my boss. I don’t want to talk about it too much, but if you can beat Kyle Busch and this field, they will probably have ten guys that should make the race but do go home, and the rest are great. It’s going to be a tough one. It’s going to be a challenge, but I think we should have a shot at it.”
Gragson will join a stout field of Super Late Model racers competing in the Snowball Derby on Sunday, December 3 at Five Flags Speedway. More information on the race can be found by visiting Schaeffer’s Snowball Central and www.5flagsspeedway.com.
-By: Connor Sullivan, Speed51.com CT, MA, RI & Long Island Editor - Twitter: @Connor51CT
-Photo Credit: Speed51.com