Avondale, Ariz. – JR Motorsports entered with three of the four spots in the Championship 4 in its favor.
But by the end of Saturday night, it was the one Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota that was celebrating a NASCAR Xfinity Series championship.
JRM’s drivers had been critical of Ty Gibbs, the title winner, entering Saturday’s race at Phoenix Raceway after a messy Martinsville ending that saw Gibbs wreck teammate Brandon Jones — who joins JRM in 2023. On the race track in Arizona, the title quartet raced in particularly close quarters — utilizing every inch of the asphalt they could and even rubbing fenders, but never crossing the line and crashing.
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Even Noah Gragson, Gibbs’ most notable rival this year and the most vocal against the driver of the No. 54 car during Media Day, offered his respect to the champion by the end of the night.
“He did a great job,” Gragson said. “They won the race fair and square today. It takes great people around you to learn, and I think he is capable. He has the potential to learn. He’s a great race car driver, and I’ve been in those shoes, too, where it just seems like you can’t do anything right, and it’s you against the world and whatnot.
“But at the end of the day, I think he’s got potential, and he hasn’t reached his full potential yet off the track.”
Gragson and Gibbs have had fierce battles on and off the track. Back in June, Gragson took it upon himself to confront Gibbs about their past — including a time when the two were friends.
“You know, I had a conversation with Ty the day after Portland and Gateway and let him know how I felt,” Gragson said. “Let him know if he gets into us, what the consequences are going to be, and just — I used to be buddies with him when he was younger. You know, probably three, four years ago, he was a super cool kid. He really was.
“But I don’t know, it’s just kind of changed over the last couple of years, and I’ve told him that, and he knows that. I don’t want to really go into much more detail about that out of respect for him and whatnot, but I told him that, hey, you used to be a super cool kid and you kind of turned into a little bit of a douchebag .”
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Jabs aside, the competitive respect was made evident on Saturday when Gragson congratulated Gibbs with a handshake. While Gibbs won both stages, won the race and led the most laps (125), Gragson and Allgaier combined to lead 61 laps.
“After the conversation in Portland that I had with him, we raced really hard at Pocono,” Gragson said. “I’ve made plenty of mistakes and been overly aggressive, but Pocono proved to me that he does have the potential, and he’s very, very talented.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to put him back in his place a little bit. He races really, really hard but really, really clean. And he raced like a champion tonight, and he deserves it.”
JR Motorsports co-owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. was adamant that he wanted his drivers to race Gibbs cleanly this weekend despite the lingering animosity. That wish was granted, but Gragson fell just 0.397 seconds short of the title.
“I wanted them to race him even harder, to be honest with you,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “You know, I felt like Ty did a great job of staying off our cars. He never once did anything that I thought was questionable. But it was a hard race. We gave it everything we had and the best car won the race. It was clear with practice and throughout the entire event that the 54 just had a little bit more than we did, and we got better, and maybe at the end, the No. 9 was faster. But we just, you know, things didn’t go our way.
“Racing’s got a lot of variables that impact each event, and all the things we needed to go right for us today didn’t.”
Justin Allgaier, a 12-year veteran of the Xfinity Series, was immensely disappointed in falling short in the title hunt again despite making the Championship 4 for the fifth time in seven years.
“I lost my voice,” Allgaier said. “I was yelling at myself because I let the No. 54 get to my outside at one point there at the end. And I don’t know that that was the difference maker, but it was definitely frustrating not to be able to pull it off tonight.
“Proud of our team. We’ll come back next year, and we’ve got an opportunity to do it again. But we’re going to probably be a little salty for a few days and then go right back at it.”
The stress for Earnhardt was evident, who hoped to see Gragson, Allgaier or Josh Berry celebrating the pinnacle moment of their Xfinity Series careers.
“It’s nerve-racking because it all comes down to this, and you’ve worked really hard,” Earnhardt Jr. said, “and especially we had such a successful year, won so many races. You want to cap it off with the biggest prize of all at the end of the deal. And I saw how fast the 54 was. I know how good a race car driver is and how smart he is. And I knew we were up against a tough task today. And we got close. And the closer you get, the more nerve-wracking it is. It’s pretty tough, man.”
Berry found himself in the mix as the race progressed despite an ill-handling race car early in the event, running fourth of a 1-2-3-4 Championship 4 brigade at the front of the field in the final stage.
But a late slide into the outside wall relegated Berry back outside the top 20, eventually taking the checkered flag in 13th place.
“We had a long day, long weekend really,” Berry said, “and just felt like maybe if we could get a good restart, get up front, maybe we could make something happen, but obviously that didn’t work out.
“Wish I could have that one over again, but it’s hard to — like I said, we just didn’t do what we needed to tonight.”
Allgaier and Berry return to their respective JRM rides in 2023, while Gragson and crew chief Luke Lambert depart for the No. 42 Petty GMS Chevrolet in the NASCAR Cup Series next season.