NOAH GRAGSON Daytona Speedweek
Pole Qualifying | Duel | Daytona 500 No. 62 Beard Oil Distributing Chevrolet Camaro
Wednesday, Feb. 16: Daytona 500 qualifying (single-lap qualifying to determine pole for the Daytona 500) Time/TV/Radio: 8 p.m. ET on FS1/MRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Thursday, Feb. 17: Bluegreen Vacations Duel (twin 150-mile qualifying races that set the field for the Daytona 500) Time/TV/Radio: 7 p.m. ET on FS1/MRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Sunday, Feb. 20: 64th annual Daytona 500 (first of 36 points-paying NASCAR Cup Series races in 2022) Time/TV/Radio: 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX/MRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Notes of Interest:
Since its NASCAR Cup Series debut in 2017, Beard Motorsports has proven to be the little team that could, a modern-day David competing against the Goliaths of NASCAR. The family-owned organization has taken a strategic approach to its racing endeavors, forming a technical partnership with Richard Childress Racing (RCR) and running only the superspeedway races at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway and its sister track, Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. With a Chevrolet Camaro powered by an ECR-built engine, Beard Motorsports can race at the front, a fact proven by a pair of top-10 finishes in 2020 at the hands of former driver Brendan Gaughan – seventh in the Daytona 500 and eighth in the Coke Zero Sugar 400, also at Daytona.
Beard Motorsports was the first non-chartered NASCAR Cup Series team to announce its intention to compete in the 64th running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 20 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. The generational race team founded by the late Mark Beard Sr., and now run by his wife, Linda Beard, was the first independent team to procure a NextGen chassis for its use in 2022, beginning with the Daytona 500. Plans are for the No. 62 Beard Oil Distributing Chevrolet Camaro to compete in subsequent races at Daytona and Talladega with Noah Gragson as its driver.
What drives Beard Motorsports? Passion. Linda, along with her children, carry on the pursuit of their husband and father, respectively, in racing and in business. Beard Motorsports and its family-owned company, Beard Oil Distributing – a certified women owned business – is a distinctive qualifier in the male-dominated sport of auto racing. Linda is hands-on with the family motorsports business and was alongside her husband as he pursued his passion of racing at Daytona – first as a NASCAR Xfinity Series driver in 1982 and simultaneously as a team owner. Today, Beard Motorsports competes in his honor. The 64th Daytona 500 will be the team’s 18th career NASCAR Cup Series start, its eighth at Daytona and its fifth in the Daytona 500.
While it’s Linda Beard at the top of Beard Motorsports’ masthead, the team is managed with ample support from her children, Amie and Mark Beard Jr., along with help from crew chief Darren Shaw and Gaughan, the former NASCAR Cup Series driver who made 17 of his 67 career Cup Series starts with Beard Motorsports. It was Gaughan who, upon retiring from racing at the conclusion of the 2020 season, tabbed Gragson to be his successor in the No. 62 Beard Oil Distributing Chevrolet Camaro. In addition to both being natives of Las Vegas, Gaughan has observed Gragson’s rise from regional racer to a competitor in NASCAR’s top national touring series.
While Gragson has yet to make his official debut in a NASCAR Cup Series points-paying race, he is not new to NASCAR. The 23-year-old competes fulltime in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and 2022 marks his fourth season in NASCAR’s stepping-stone division to the elite NASCAR Cup Series. Gragson is a five-time winner in the Xfinity Series, and he scored his first career victory in the 2020 season opener at Daytona. He is coming off his best year yet where in 2021 Gragson won three races and advanced to the Championship 4 where he competed for the series title in the season finale at Phoenix Raceway.
Before joining the Xfinity Series fulltime in 2019, Gragson competed in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 2017 and 2018. He won twice – Martinsville (Va.) Speedway in October 2017 and Kansas Speedway in May 2018 – and finished second in the 2018 championship. Those Truck Series results were a continuation of the kind of talent Gragson showcased in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series. In 2015 and 2016, Gragson raced in this developmental league, regionally split into two divisions – K&N Pro Series East and K&N Pro Series West. Gragson won six races between the two entities and narrowly missed out on the 2015 West title by a scant seven points.
Even though Gragson has not yet made a points-paying start in a NASCAR Cup Series race, he has driven in NASCAR’s top series. In fact, it was last year for Beard Motorsports in the Bluegreen Vacations Duel – twin 150-mile qualifying races that set the field for the Daytona 500. Gragson started 22nd in his Duel race and drove to the middle of the pack by lap two. The No. 62 Beard Oil Distributing Chevrolet Camaro was inside the top-10 and, most importantly, in the transfer position for a Daytona 500 starting spot before the caution came out on lap 37. From fifth place, Gragson pitted for four fresh tires and fuel. He restarted in 12th place and battled with the No. 13 car of Garrett Smithley for the transfer spot. With just four laps to go, Gragson was involved in a multicar accident. The Beard Oil Distributing Chevrolet was damaged beyond repair, ultimately ending Gragson’s day and any chance of transferring to the Daytona 500.
Qualifying for the Daytona 500 is unlike any other NASCAR Cup Series race. Before drivers compete in the Duel, they race the clock in single-lap qualifying. The two fastest cars are locked into the field while the rest of the drivers are split into the Duel. Odd-numbered drivers are in the first Duel and even-numbered drivers are in the second Duel. Only 40 spots are available in the Daytona 500 and, for drivers like Gragson, earning one of those coveted spots in the Daytona 500 comes one of two ways – be one of the two fastest independent teams in qualifying, or race your way into the Daytona 500 by way of the Duel. There are only four open spots in the Daytona 500 for independent teams, as chartered NASCAR teams hold the other 36 positions, giving them a guaranteed starting spot for the Daytona 500 and every race on the 2022 Cup Series schedule. A team that holds a charter is akin to a franchise, the way the Las Vegas Raiders and the Vegas Golden Knights are to the NFL and NHL, respectively. Gragson obviously wants to outperform 39 other drivers but, more specifically, any driver racing for the other independent teams looking to make the Daytona 500.
Noah Gragson, Driver of the No. 62 Beard Oil Distributing Chevrolet Camaro
Your fulltime job is racing for JR Motorsports in the NASCAR Xfinity Series where your car owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is one of the best superspeedway racers NASCAR has ever seen. What advice has he provided as you prepare to make the Daytona 500?
“I was always the guy to ride around in the back, save your car to the end of the race. Dale said, ‘Screw that,’ and he told me that I needed to go out there and have the mentality of almost like going out to GoPro Motorplex or any go-kart track around the country, where you’re beating and banging and somehow everybody ends up finishing the race even when you’re super aggressive. He said, ‘Do whatever you’ve got to do to be up front and do whatever you’ve got to do to just be able to learn how to pass. Learn your car. Use the first three-quarters of the race to learn your racecar, try to make moves. If you fall back and you get to the tail of the line, who really cares? Just learn because you’re going to want that knowledge for later in the race.’ So, I did that the very next time I went to Daytona and there was a significant difference in the way the stats were at the end of the race. I had a different approach in 2020 and had a lot of success. Just being aggressive, not really daring, just learning the car with a wreckers or checkers mentality.”
Earnhardt tested the NextGen car at Daytona in mid-January. Have you gotten any insights from him about how different it is or how similar it is before you get into the NextGen car yourself?
“I talked to Dale after his test at Daytona and he said it’s a little bit different, but it handles like a speedway car. In fact, it should handle more like an Xfinity car, and the package should be more like that. The Xfinity Series has been my bread and butter these last few years, so it’s going to be a new set of challenges, but we’re excited for it. We’re excited to learn it, we’re excited to get on track down in Daytona and really figure it out, but we won’t know until we get there.”
Before you run the Daytona 500, you have to run the Duel. Last year, you came up a little bit short in the Duel. Have you replayed that race, and is there anything you would’ve done differently?
“I feel like last year’s Duel was one of the best races I’ve ever put together in my career. We kind of struggled on the pit stops just because we don’t have a fulltime crew, so that kind of hurt us. The first lap, we started the race in last – in 21st or 22nd – and by the time we got to turn three on the first lap, I was splitting Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney, who were running 13th and 14th down the back straightaway, and I got up to 12th getting into turn three on the first lap, so I passed 10 cars. I felt really comfortable last year, I felt comfortable with our crew chief, Darren. The car drove great and that has me really confident going into this season. Darren really knows what he’s doing underneath a racecar, and if we can just go and do our job and race to our full potential and minimize mistakes, there’s no reason we can’t get into the race this year.”
Even though it was a limited Daytona experience for four last year, did you have a “pinch me” moment when you were pulling off pit road and onto the track?
“A few times. Walking out, we had a rain delay after the first Duel. We were in the second Duel, and we were heading out to the grid and they’re pushing the 4 car of Kevin Harvick out to the grid, and it was Rodney Childers (crew chief) and Kevin Harvick walking next to me and I looked over and said, ‘Wow.’ I used to play as this guy in a video game and now we’re going to race on the world’s largest stage at Daytona International Speedway and be able to go head-to-head with these guys. Getting laps in there, that was really surreal. I was so focused in the race. Once I put my helmet on, I was so focused and ready to go to work. Once you’re up there with the big dogs and you see all those paint schemes and you see those numbers and drivers, it’s a pretty surreal moment. And then we wrecked and I got out of the car, unfortunately, with two laps to go and I just took a second to look around and thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible.’ Growing up as a kid never even expecting to make it to this level in my racing career – it’s always been a dream – and to be able to just take a second and do a 360 and look around and just really take that moment in – that was a really special moment to me. We just raced against the big dogs and, unfortunately, we came up short, but I really wanted to take that moment in.”
Is it helpful to have that experience in your hip pocket?
“I think it’s great having that experience with those Cup guys. I mean, we ran in the top-10, all the way up to sixth at one point. Kyle Busch was right behind me for 20 or 30 laps. Just trying to gain those guys’ respect and be able to show that while I am an Xfinity driver, I can hang with these guys and keep the car straight and not be tearing up other guys’ equipment. I think just getting the respect from the other competitors is the most important thing from last year, and being able to see what that race craft is in the Cup Series. It’s a big leap up to the Cup Series. It’s a challenge, and those guys are the best stock car drivers in America, and to be able to follow them and learn from them, it’s a big opportunity.”
Racing for an independent team with no guaranteed starting spot means you have to balance speed with self-preservation. How do you run up front in the Duel and make sure you keep a straight racecar and are there at the finish?
“You always have to be patiently aggressive, just trying to stay ahead of things and trying to put yourself in good positions. I’m going to drive my ass off just to do my best job and be aggressive from the start of the Duel. Hopefully, we’re locked in and that’ll mean a different approach, but you’ve got to be on it from the drop of the green flag.”
Last year as you readied for the Daytona 500, Linda Beard told you to “drive the piss out of it.” Does this fit your checkers-or-wreckers mentality?
“Missing qualifying last year due to tech inspection stuff really put us in a position of, ‘Hey, we need to be the highest open team.’ And, like Mrs. Beard said, ‘Go out there, son, and drive the piss out of it.’ And that’s what we did. I don’t know what the entry list looks like this year. We had 44, 45 cars last year. I’m not exactly sure how many we’re going to have this year. It might be less than that. That might stack the cards a little bit differently this year and we might be in a different position this year as far as the task at hand. We’ve just got to wait and see how qualifying goes and that’s really going to set us up for the Duel.”
Everybody loves an underdog. Do you go into Daytona with a chip on your shoulder, knowing you can upset the apple cart with these multicar teams and carry it as a badge of honor?
“Definitely. Even last year, racing up with these guys, there’s a picture of me leading the top line. I had Bubba Wallace behind me, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. Leading those cars and being in our 62 Beard Oil Distributing Chevrolet – the one that you don’t see every weekend and has one fulltime employee, crew chief Darren Shaw – it’s pretty remarkable what we were able to do. And moments like that, I feel like, definitely earn you respect in the sport. So, I definitely have a chip on my shoulder going into Daytona of, ‘Hey, we can still do it.’ We might be an underdog when it comes to everything on paper, but I know Darren Shaw, he brings really fast racecars to the racetrack. The Chevrolet power is incredible and the cars drive really well. I have everything on the table that I need to go out there and perform. Once we get out there, it’s my job to get the car into the Daytona 500.”
You’ve got more races with Beard Motorsports planned for this year. How important is it to come out of the gate strong and set the tone with your limited Cup Series schedule?
“I think the most important goal for us in setting the tone is completing all the laps. That’s what we want to do. We need to have a racecar – we only have one of them at Beard Motorsports – so we need to be finishing these races with the least amount of damage possible. We know some guys will wreck out, so we’ll just hope we don’t get collected in it. Completing all the laps is our number one goal, and bringing the car home in one piece with as little damage as possible. With the resources that we have, it makes it a challenge and it’s difficult only having one car, so your mindset is a little bit different. Let’s say if you had a backup car and you had another for the second superspeedway race of the season, that’s going to be a challenge, maybe not racing to my full potential and making moves as I normally would if we did have another car back at the shop. It’s definitely going to be difficult adapting to that because I’ve always been a checkers-or-wreckers racer and trying to be aggressing and make big, bold moves in trying to get to the front. This year, it might be hanging around in the back and let the other guys wreck, and don’t dice it up and try to finish the race.”