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The 2022 Xfinity Series playoffs haven’t even started yet, but NASCAR fans undoubtedly are already looking forward to the battle for 2023 Cup Series Rookie of the Year. Noah Gragson vs. Ty Gibbs gets better by the mile.

Unfortunately, Sheldon Creed became collateral damage in Friday’s fireworks at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Noah Gragson tapped Ty Gibbs, and Sheldon Creed had to tap out

The news of the night should have been Noah Grason becoming the first driver in the history of JR Motorsports to win three straight Xfinity Series races. Since the subject is Gragson, however, the “how” tends to be more important than the “what.”

Sheldon Creed, trying to ascend to one of the 12 playoff positions in the final race of the regular season, saw his hopes die with a crash on Lap 129 of the 0.533-mile oval. Creed was racing alongside Ty Gibbs for the lead when Gragson bumped Gibbs from behind. The contact wasn’t substantial, but it was enough to send the Toyota up the track and into Creed’s car. Both cars went into the wall and were done for the night.

Thus, one move by Gragson took out a playoff hopeful and the one driver with the hope of snaring the regular-season title, and its 15 bonus playoff points, from AJ Allmendinger.

Noah Gragson got his payback for Portland

When the subject of Noah Gragson and road courses comes up, the track that comes to mind is Road America. That’s where Gragson tried running Sage Karam off the road as payback for some early jostling. However, Gragson’s move wiped out more than a dozen cars and earned him a fine and points penalty from NASCAR.

However, Friday’s incident with Gibbs at Bristol evoked memories of the Xfinity Series’ return to Portland on a wickedly wet day a month earlier. Midway through Stage 2, NASCAR threw a caution flag for grass and mud between Turns 11 and 12. Gibbs took the inside on the restart, but Gragson made a pass from the left coming out of Turn 3, nudging the Toyota as a result of grazing the curb.

There wasn’t any significant damage, and Gragson was going to gain the lead regardless. But Gibbs retaliated by tapping Gragson’s No. 9 Chevy from behind, knocking the leader into the grass.

By lap’s end, Sheldon Creed was out front until Gibbs also got into him in Turn 12. Gibbs and Creed went into the grass, and Myatt Snider went on to win the stage.

At the end of the day, Gibbs placed seventh in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 54 Toyota and Gragson ninth. Without the altercation with Gibbs, Gragson could have battled AJ Allmendinger for the win.

“I’ll take care of that,” Gragson said afterward. “I mean we’re racing, and I got the lead, (he) cheap shot us, but we’ll keep that at the back of our mind and try to go to Nashville and win that race. You’ll know when I get him back.”

Fair guess: Friday was the night Larson got him back.

Denny Hamlin, who drives for JGR in the Cup Series, took notice.

“Not sure the score between the 9-54 is,” Hamlin tweeted, “but eye test says it’s heavy on one end.”

The score that matters for now is 2,051-2,038

Noah Gragson celebrates Friday's Xfinity Series victory in the No. 9 Chevy at Bristol Motor Speedway. | Getty Images
Noah Gragson celebrates Friday’s Xfinity Series victory in the No. 9 Chevy at Bristol Motor Speedway. | Getty Images

Noah Gragson vs. the Xfinity Field Might Match Any Drama the Cup Series Generates

Putting Ty Gibbs out of business on Friday had benefits on multiple levels for Noah Gragson as he heads off to the playoffs.

His sixth victory of the season earned Gragson another five playoff points. Sliding up one spot in season points resulted in a net gain of a point. In addition, Gibbs dropped two spots in the standings after his DNF. Consequently, he gave back three bonus points.

So, the playoffs will start with Gragson the top seed at 2,051 points, Gibbs second at 2,038, and Justin Allgaier third at 2,033. AJ Allmendinger (2,032) and Josh Berry (2,022) round out the top five. All are threats to win the Championship 4 at Phoenix in early November, but all eyes along the way figure to be on Gragson vs. Gibbs.

Gragson has already signed to drive in the 2023 Cup Series for Petty GMS. Gibbs is all but certain to get Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota on his grandfather’s team.

Let the battle for Rookie of the Year begin.

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