Talented Cup Rookies Gragson and Gibbs are intense rivals and both have had Bristol success
By KELLY CRANDALL
The next chapter in the rivalry between Ty Gibbs and Noah Gragson is about to get dirty. Bristol Motor Speedway dirty that is.
Both drivers will tell you that they are not and cannot be worried about the other, and while it would be an honor to win NASCAR Cup Series rookie of the year, it is not the main focus. The duo is trying to compete at a high level every week, and the Food City Dirt Race on April 9 (7 p.m. FOX and PRN Radio) at dirt-transformed Bristol will be one of their biggest challenges.
“I’ve run ARCA on dirt tracks, but I don’t think that is even close to what this is going to be,” said Gibbs. “I grew up racing dirt at Millbridge in my dirt karts, so I enjoy it. I hope it’s enjoyable.”
This coming Easter Sunday will be the first time Gibbs has run on the Bristol dirt. Not just in his Toyota Camry TRD Cup Series car but ever, not having started there previously as the Xfinity Series does not run on the Bristol dirt, and he was not entered in either of the previous two Craftsman Truck Series events.
“It’s really cool and hopefully, we can be very fast,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said. “Hopefully, I enjoy it. Hopefully, the fans will enjoy it. It’s a different experience, for sure.”
On the other hand, Gragson is looking for more with his Legacy Motor Club Chevrolet team in his second time on the dirt. In his first run on the Bristol dirt last season, Gragson finished 27th.
“I hope to finish on the lead lap,” Gragson said. “It’s a tough, tough deal. I’m not a dirt guy, and I’ve tried to learn it; I’ve gone out to Millbridge Speedway with Josh Wise and (others) and run micros out there to just learn. With an asphalt race, you’re looking at how the rubber lays down and stuff, but it’s not your priority. Your priority is how your car is handling and getting that better. Whereas with dirt, you’re looking at the track, and it’s changing every single lap.
“That’s been the biggest challenge for me. It’s like, OK, how is my balance? Am I running in the right line? Is my balance right for this? Am I too loose? Am I too tight? You’re hanging out there sideways. I probably need to go out there five- or six times during practice and really learn what the limit of the car is because that’s how you learn how much you can hang it out and what the car will take. I really struggle with it, so I’m going to try to get through that weekend.”
Although they are rookies by NASCAR designation, Gibbs and Gragson both have more experience than many at this point in their careers. Gibbs ran 15 Cup Series races last season for 23XI Racing as the substitute driver for an injured Kurt Busch. Gragson ran 18 races.
But the experience is still limited, and no matter how prepared a driver thinks they are for the Cup Series, the jump is always significant. Gibbs and Gragson have gone from being big fish in a small pond (the Xfinity Series) to small fish in the big Cup Series pond.
“I really enjoy that,” said Gibbs. “I think being a rookie is something that you don’t take for granted. I enjoy being a rookie. Being in the Xfinity Series in 2021 and being a rookie was really cool. Being an ARCA rookie was awesome. I think it’s a cool experience. It’s fun because people around you don’t think you’re going to do as well, and I like proving them wrong. And you can only do it one time. So, this is my third and last chance until I go do something different.”
In his first full Cup Series season, Gragson's goal is to try and finish every lap. Doing so means he’s learning and getting better each time behind the wheel.
“I think that’s all you really can do, realistically,” he said. “You obviously want to win, but I don’t know how realistic that is. We want to take the first third of the year or half the year, complete all the laps and then we can reevaluate from there.”
No matter what, Gragson isn’t going to put pressure on himself.
“I just try to have as much as possible, but I try to be prepared,” said Gragson. “Being prepared is the most important part. As long as I’m prepared, there shouldn’t be a pressure to perform. You shouldn’t be nervous or anything when you’re prepared. It’s like taking a test, right? If you go into a test and you study for it, you’re not going to be nervous. But if you didn’t study, you’re probably going to be a little nervous, and that’s where that pressure comes from.
“With Josh Wise, (crew chief) Luke Lambert, and everyone in the Team Chevy program, we have a really good system that we use to prepare for these races. I feel more confident than ever.”
Drivers winning in their rookie season is rare. It’s even rarer for a rookie to win at Bristol as it’s happened just once: in 1979 by Dale Earnhardt Sr.
“Really?” asked Gibbs.
So, while dirt might be foreign to Gibbs and Gragson, winning is not, and neither is winning at Bristol. Gibbs has an ARCA Menards Series win at Bristol from 2021, and Gragson has two Xfinity Series wins at Bristol from 2020 and 2022.
It will be a taller task to join Earnhardt in the Cup Series winners club.
“I’m up to it,” Gibbs said. “I’ve got two shots this year. On two completely different tracks, too. I’d enjoy that.”
The Bristol race weekend is highlighted by the NASCAR Cup Series returning to its roots with the Food City Dirt Race on Sunday evening, April 9 (7 p.m., FOX and PRN Radio). The WEATHER GUARD® Truck Race on Dirt will see the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series take to the clay-covered track on Saturday (8 p.m., FS1 and MRN Radio) and will be preceded by Bush’s Beans Qualifying, which offers four heat races to set the starting lineups in each series. On Friday, teams in both the Cup Series and Craftsman Truck Series will be able to fine-tune their machines during Bush’s Beans Practice Day.
In addition to cheering on their favorite drivers during the weekend and enjoying the Easter Celebration, Bristol Motor Speedway fans will definitely want to take advantage of so many activities to make a complete weekend of family fun. There will be great video entertainment provided by Colossus TV, the world's largest center-hung video screen, premium VIP experiences like the Super Fan Suites, tailgating, a visit to the BMS Kids Zone, BMS Fan Zone and Fan Midway, on-site camping, concerts and other entertainment at the Food City Fan Zone Stage like the Race Day Revival with Kenny Wallace and John Roberts, great food and beverages in the concession stands throughout the property, and so much more.
To purchase tickets for Sunday's Food City Dirt Race or Saturday's WEATHER GUARD® Truck Race on Dirt and Bush’s Beans Qualifying, please visit the BMS website, or call the BMS Ticket Sales Center at (866) 415-4158.
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KELLY CRANDALL covers the NASCAR Cup Series for RACER Magazine. She is the current president of the National Motorsports Press Association and a two-time NMPA George Cunningham Writer of the Year winner. She hosts the Racing Writer's Podcast and also appears frequently as a guest host on several Sirius XM NASCAR Radio shows.