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Noah Gragson maturing but still looks to put on a show

Kevin James is no stranger to NASCAR, as he sits down with Rutledge Wood to preview his new Netflix show 'The Crew,' where life in the garage goes off track for a crew chief and his team when a new boss shakes things up.

A feel-good story did not come to pass for Noah Gragson and the small Beard Motorsports team Thursday night in the Duels at Daytona International Speedway.

Still mourning the recent death of team owner, Mark Beard Sr., the No. 62 team faced adversity entering Thursday. The day before, Gragson was kept from making a qualifying run after his car failed inspection three times.

His only chance to make the Daytona 500 was to be the top-finishing non-chartered driver in Duel 2.

That chance was eliminated in a multi-car wreck with four laps to go that was triggered by contact between another non-chartered driver, Garrett Smithley, and Brad Keselowski.

Gragson, who was on the outside of Keselowski, had nowhere to escape.

With his Daytona 500 hopes dashed, Gragson has had to shift focus quickly. On Friday, the Xfinity Series regular was back in his familiar No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet to prepare for Saturday’s season opener.

He comes off a sophomore season where he earned two wins and 17 top-five finishes, but failed to make the Championship 4 after Harrison Burton snatched a playoff victory from him at Texas Motor Speedway.

Additionally, Gragson had several on-track clashes with competitors, including one with teammate Justin Allgaier at Bristol and another with Burton at Kentucky Speedway, which devolved into a post-race fight.

Not long after the Kentucky incident, Gragson took stock of his personal life and sought to eliminate unnecessary drama.

This maturation process remains ongoing, but entering a new season, he feels it’s working.

“I think it was a good change for me,” he said last week. “I needed to focus on myself and ... don’t really focus in the moment. Have a plan and make some goals, and stick with your goals. It’s changed me for the better. I still talk to some of those people, but there’s no more distractions really in my life. I’ve surrounded myself with good people.

“I had a lot of weight on my shoulders last year. … I feel like it was time to make a change. We were going through a bit of a slump there, in the middle part of the season. It was a struggle. (But) I feel better now. I feel more confident than ever. Each day, getting closer to race season, it gets me more pumped up.”

But even as he matures, Gragson still declares himself as a “wreckers or checkers racer.”

In the wake of his various dust-ups last season, he attempted to refine his style. But the trade-off in the results was unacceptable to him and he returned to his aggressiveness.

“I tried that strategy of taking a step back and it wasn’t for the better,” he recalled. “We really suffered on speed at that point. I think you saw in the playoffs that I got to a point where I said, ‘Screw that, I’m going back to my own way.’ I’m gonna try to be coachable, but also stay true to myself and my style and what I feel comfortable with – hanging it out on the line, being sideways and edgy.

“I’m an adrenaline junkie. When I scare myself, that’s where I feel the most comfortable. I wanted to try what (team owner) Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) and other people were saying. I wanted to try and see if it would work, and I think I got my answer.”

So, it’s full speed ahead for Gragson, regardless of whether he scares himself, Dale Jr., or crew chief Dave Elenz with his exploits.

This season, Gragson looks to contend for a title against a stacked field.

Three of last year’s Championship 4, including Allgaier, have returned. Gragson is one of eight drivers from last year’s top 10 in points to return; Chase Briscoe and Ross Chastain, the outliers, have moved to the Cup Series.

While unsure if it’s a sign of his maturation, Gragson says he hasn’t thought about who may be his top rivals over the offseason.

He sees it as confidence in his own abilities.

“I feel like my biggest competition is myself and not getting myself into a rut,” he said. " ... I feel like we can be a championship contender, but at the end of the day, if I’m not fully prepared, it really doesn’t matter. The results won’t be there.

“I’m focused on our race team, (our sponsors), the No. 9 team, and myself to get the job done. I’m racing the race tracks and trying to go as fast as I can go. And if we go as fast as we can go, it doesn’t really matter where the other guys are.”