Noah Gragson's career season a result of new approach at Stewart-Haas Racing

Fresh off back-to-back top-10 finishes, Noah Gragson is setting career-best marks in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing.

But if you ask Gragson, he’ll tell you this is only a glimpse of what he could do in a consistent environment.

"I've been taking steps as a driver each and every week on my preparation and whatnot," he said ahead of this weekend's race at Kansas. "I don't feel like I'm anywhere close to where I could be.”

Gragson, who joined Stewart-Haas Racing this season, made his early starts in Cup with multiple teams.

Gragson made his debut during the 2021 Duel races at Daytona while driving for Beard Motorsports but did not qualify for the Daytona 500.

He competed in his first Cup race in 2022. Gragson made three starts for Beard Motorsports, 10 for Kaulig Racing and five for Hendrick Motorsports.

NASCAR: Daytona 500
NASCAR: Daytona 500

Michael Jordan: NASCAR not making permanent team charters would be a ‘big miss’

The co-owner of 23XI Racing expressed his opinion in an article by The New York Times.

Gragson then made 21 starts for Legacy Motor Club last season before a suspension for liking a racially insensitive post on social media.

Gragson posted one top-10 finish in his first 39 Cup starts — fifth at Daytona in 2022. He already has four top 10s in his first 11 races with Stewart-Haas Racing, matching teammate Chase Briscoe.

“I've been making a lot of steps with the help of (crew chief Drew Blickensderfer),” Gragson said. “Just personally as a driver, I've been making steps of growth just the past year, week in and week out. It seems like I learned something new, where I maybe hadn’t taken those steps in my Xfinity and Cup career.”

Driving for those different teams helped Gragson see how they operated but it was not the ideal schedule for a newcomer to NASCAR’s top series. Sporadically hopping between cars is less beneficial than working with one team, one crew and one crew chief for a full season.

“You're able to just keep building on that communication between driver and crew chief in that consistent environment,” Gragson said.

“You get into almost a routine. It allows you to be a lot more efficient, too, because you're not worried about little stuff like, ‘Where’s my helmet at? Do I have a helmet there?’”

The ability to work with the same group of people has been significant for Gragson as he has gained more confidence in the No. 10 Ford Mustang Dark Horse and moved closer to the playoff cutline. He has gone from 30th to 21st in points in the last two races, marking a comeback from a 35-point penalty that dropped him to negative six points after Atlanta.

Though the progress was not a quick process considering that Gragson had to learn to communicate with Blickensderfer, who had spent the previous two seasons with Aric Almirola.

Gragson and Almirola drive differently. They communicate differently. They prepare for races differently.


Kyle Petty ‘amazed, humbled’ by continued support for Kyle Petty Charity Ride

The Kyle Petty Charity Ride begins Saturday and takes a new path across the United States.

Gragson was a member of the Josh Wise driver optimization program at Chevrolet. He trained with other Chevrolet drivers and had a structured routine set for him. Almirola did things on his own.

“Aric's the ultimate professional,” Blickensderfer said. “Aric, I knew when he showed up, he was prepared. He was doing everything. What I learned early is that Noah was willing to do that work. He just didn’t know where to look for that.”

Blickensderfer and Gragson have had to account for those differences as they continued trying to make the team a playoff contender.

This process has not always been easy but it has been intriguing for the veteran crew chief with four Cup wins. Blickensderfer has had to adjust his daily schedule so that he and Gragson could spend more time together studying races and building a foundation.

Blickensderfer and Gragson have had to utilize a different form of communication that wasn’t present when Blickensderfer worked with Michael McDowell or Almirola.

“We'll look at the 10 best drivers at a certain racetrack — like Dover last week,” Blickensderfer said. “It’s like, ‘Martin Truex (Jr.) drives it like this, Denny Hamlin like that,’ and it's super easy then for me to say in practice, or we're in the race, ‘Hey, drive it like Ross Chastain.’

“(Gragson) knows what that throttle trace and that brake trace look like from watching (film) on Tuesday. And he can start emulating that and pick up speed or figure out how the car changes. It's helped our dialogue. It's helped us be more efficient throughout the weekend.”

AUTO: APR 14 NASCAR Cup Series AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 400
AUTO: APR 14 NASCAR Cup Series AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 400

Good news, bad news for NASCAR Cup teams ahead of Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Josh Berry is moving up in the points, while Daniel Hemric has had back-to-back top 10s.

The No. 10 team is not the only one focusing on this efficiency. Blickensderfer found that Briscoe had similar issues in practice and qualifying. This piece of information led to weekly lunches featuring Briscoe, Gragson, Blickensderfer and fellow crew chief Richard Boswell.

Briscoe and Gragson already have great chemistry built on the foundation of their friendship. The lunches build upon this chemistry while giving Blickensderfer and Boswell opportunities to make their drivers better ahead of each race weekend.

“We have the ability to give them a ton of information and kind of overload it," Blickensderfer said. "We're able to sit down with that information and say, ‘You guys don't have to read 28 pages of data every single week and try to memorize it. What's important to you?’”

So far, the work is paying off for Gragson and Blickensderfer. The team is running better than it did a year before. Almirola’s average finish through 11 races was 23.7. Gragson’s is 17.3.

Gragson is setting career-best marks in every statistical category and is growing more confident during qualifying, a pivotal part of the race weekend given the importance of track position with the Next Gen car.

The growth, while evident, does not guarantee a spot in the playoffs or a win this season. But it sets up a scenario where the team can turn some heads.

“I feel if we were an 18th-place team last year or 22nd-place team last year, I think we're closer to a 10th-place team,” Blickensderfer said. “And 10th-place teams can win races.”