Noah Gragson rattled off his third consecutive top-five finish of the NASCAR Xfinity Series season Saturday at Darlington Raceway as he continues to polish a resume that should get him into the Cup Series as soon as next season.
The lone outstanding question is which Cup Series team will have a spot for him in 2023.
Noah Gragson has had success in both the NASCAR Truck Series and Xfinity Series
The gregarious Gragson burst onto the NASCAR scene at 18 years old in 2017 as the driver of the No. 18 truck for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series. Gragson finished fourth at Martinsville Speedway in just the third race of the season, won the pole at Texas Motor Speedway four weeks later, and won his first career race when the series returned to Martinsville in the fall.
He won again the next year at Kansas Speedway and finished as the runner-up to Brett Moffitt for the Truck Series title despite a series-high six pole awards and series-leading 625 laps led.
That success earned him a ride in the No. 9 car for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series. Gragson didn’t win a race and was eighth in the points standings his first year in the series in 2019, but he has won multiple races in each of the following three seasons and has been inside the top five in the points standings each year.
He is currently on a streak of three straight top-five finishes, including his second win of the year in April at Talladega Superspeedway.
He has already locked up a spot in the Xfinity Series playoffs and should be a favorite to reach the season finale at Phoenix Raceway with a chance to win the title, but that is likely not his only goal by the end of this season.
Gragson is also in position to earn a promotion to the Cup Series on a full-time basis for the 2023 season, but opportunities might be few and far between.
Few NASCAR Cup Series teams appear to have openings for next season
The only confirmed open seat so far is the No. 10 car that Aric Almirola currently drives for Stewart-Haas Racing. Almirola has piloted that car since 2018. He has two wins, 16 top-fives, and has reached the NASCAR Playoffs in each of his four previous seasons with the team. However, Almirola announced in January he will retire at the conclusion of the season.
Gragson currently drives a Chevrolet for JRM while SHR runs Fords, but his sponsor Bass Pro Shops has previously worked with SHR and co-owner Tony Stewart.
Joe Gibbs Racing could produce the other potentially series-shifting moves. It currently does not have two-time Cup Series champion Kyle Busch signed to a contract extension. Busch’s contract is up at the end of the year, his primary sponsor Mars Inc. announced in December it won’t return and Busch has been prickly with his answers about the situation.
“If it happens, it happens,” he said April 23. “If it don’t, it don’t. Goodbye.”
JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr. has also hinted at retirement. That would seem to be an obvious move since Bass Pro Shops also sponsors Truex, but JGR also has team owner Joe Gibbs’ grandson Ty Gibbs winning at a high rate in the Xfinity Series and will surely want to have a ride open for him when he is ready to join the Cup Series ranks.
Full-time Truck Series driver John Hunter Nemechek could also be an option for Gibbs. He has Cup Series experience from 2020 with Front Row Motorsports, drives a Toyota for KBM in the truck series, and runs the No. 18 Xfinity car for JGR part-time this season.
Of course, JR Motorsports could also advance to the Cup Series itself.
Gragson is running a part-time Cup Series schedule in 2022
Gragson already has modest Cup Series experience. He has part-time deals this season with Beard Motorsports in the No. 62 car for superspeedway races and Kaulig Racing in the No. 16 car for 14 events.
Kaulig could move Gragson into a full-time role for the No. 16 car, but it also has A.J. Allmendinger and Daniel Hemric as worthy options in that car, as well. Bass Pro Shops would also either have to move its sponsorship from Truex and Austin Dillon in the No. 3 car, or add Gragson to its Cup Series portfolio and partially sponsor three teams at once.
Gragson is on the shortlist of current Xfinity Series drivers in line to move up to the Cup Series for next season, but the team he ultimately lands with could determine how much success he has once he gets there.
All stats courtesy of Racing Reference