Noah Gragson, driver of the No. 9 Adventure Force Chevrolet Camaro, clinched a position in the 2019 NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs on Saturday afternoon after earning a ninth-place finish in the Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200 at Darlington Raceway. Gragson becomes just the eighth driver to clinch a spot in the playoffs, joining JR Motorsports teammates Michael Annett and Justin Allgaier, with just two races remaining in the regular season. In addition to qualifying for the playoffs, Gragson has now scored a top-10 finish in 12 of the last 14 NXS races and has earned an average finish of 7.4 during that same timeframe.
Gragson lined up for the 147-lap event from the eighth position and fought for position inside the top 10 throughout the opening 10 laps, despite reporting that he was extremely tight rolling through the corner. Then, during a lap 11 caution, crew chief Dave Elenz opted to bring the driver of the Adventure Force Chevrolet to pit road for a chassis adjustment in the hopes of alleviating the tight-handling condition. As a result of the stop, Gragson returned to the track for the lap 16 restart in 30th. Undeterred by the loss of track position, Gragson pressed forward, taking advantage of a long green-flag run to improve 10 positions by the time the green-and-white checkered flag was displayed to end Stage One on lap 45.
During the stage-ending caution, Elenz brought the Adventure Force Chevrolet back to pit road for four tires and another chassis adjustment after Gragson had reported that he was still tight through the distinct corners of Darlington. After narrowly avoiding a sliding No. 86 coming off of Turn 2 on the opening lap of the second stage, Gragson steadily worked forward, racing back into the top 10 and up to ninth before the tight-handling condition unfortunately returned. This handling condition ultimately shuffled Gragson back to 11th as Stage Two came to a close on lap 90.
Prior to the beginning of the third and final stage, Elenz once again called the Las Vegas native back to pit road for another round of chassis adjustments. Returning to the track following the stop in ninth, the driver of the Adventure Force Chevrolet settled in to the 11th position as a long green flag run developed through the middle of the final stage. The JRM driver maintained his track position inside the top 15 until a lap 132 caution period provided one last opportunity for Gragson to come to pit road for four tires and adjustments. Following a great stop by the Adventure Force crew, Gragson improved four positions to take the ensuing restart in seventh.
In the closing laps, Gragson continued to fight for a top-10 position, battling with teammate Allgaier before taking the checkered flag in the eighth position.
With the result, Gragson becomes the eighth driver to qualify for the 2019 NXS Playoffs with just two races remaining in the regular season.
Cole Custer scored the victory, with Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and JRM team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounding out the top five.
Noah Gragson, driver No. 9 Adventure Force team
“We fought hard today with our Adventure Force Chevrolet and I’m happy we were able to come away with another top-10. Dave (Elenz, crew chief) and all the guys on this team worked really hard all weekend and that shows by how we were able to keep getting better throughout the race today. It also feels really good that we are now locked in to the playoffs. That’s been a goal since the season started and now that we are in, we know what the endgame is and I couldn’t think of a better group of guys to have than this group as we get ready for the playoffs to get underway.”