Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – MARTINSVILLE, VA – Three of NASCAR’s brightest young talents sat shoulder to shoulder, sharing smiles and good spirits Friday morning at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway – all talented teenagers today and certain stars of tomorrow.
Noah Gragson, 19, the November NASCAR Camping World Truck Series winner at this track, joined 17-year-olds Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland to preview Saturday’s Alpha Energy Solutions 250 (2 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the historic .526-mile oval.
The three Kyle Busch Motorsports drivers are good friends away from the track and intense competitors on track – a can’t-miss dynamic for the sport.
And expectations are high.
“We all joke around, mess around off the track, but when it’s time to be serious and it’s time to get to crunch time and put our racing hats on, I think we all are like a light switch, we flip very easily,’’ said Gragson, who drives the No. 18 Safelite Toyota Tundra for KMB.
“On the race track I think we all want to be in a KBM (Kyle Busch Motorsports) top-three finish, 1-2-3. If we all are 1-2-3, then we’re going to be battling hard. I think together, collectively, we all want the best for the organization of Kyle Busch Motorsports and we all know we have fast Toyota Tundras, so now it’s just working together until we get to the front and then it’s game on.”
And it’s been a good game. Real good.
Gragson scored his first career national series win in Martinsville’s Camping World Truck Series race last November, beating former series champs Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter to the checkered flag. And he finished fourth in the track’s spring race last year.
“I have a lot of confidence in myself, but I’m trying not to – I don’t know how to put it, but trying not to rely on that,’’ Gragson said. “I’m trying to treat this weekend as if I’ve never been here before and that I’m going in here and I’m trying to learn all weekend and really focus on executing and knowing what I can do because I feel like if I come into this weekend and I say “Oh, well I won here before. I know how to do it,” that really doesn’t do me any good for a young driver.
“Maybe Jimmie Johnson or guys who have won here a lot of times, maybe they can do that, but I don’t feel like I can do that. Young driver just trying to learn as much as I can. I’m not putting any pressure on myself. I’m just trying to execute all weekend.”
It’s a similar goal for both Burton – the son of former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup driver Jeff Burton – and Gilliland – the son of former Daytona 500 polesitter David Gilliland. Just 17 years old, they aren’t allowed to compete on the series’ biggest tracks yet, so this weekend’s opportunity at the famously tight Martinsville half-miler is a long-anticipated return to action for all three.
Like his friends, Gilliland has seized upon every NASCAR opportunity. He has three top-seven finishes in six truck races, including a third-place showing at New Hampshire last summer and a fifth-place effort in the fall Martinsville race. He turns 18 years old in May – the threshold age NASCAR has set for full-time competition – on all types of tracks – in its national series.
“It’s been hard (not racing),’’ said Gilliland, who will steer the No. 4 Mobil 1 Toyota this weekend. “Just spending a lot of time at the shop and a lot of time at the simulator just trying to make up for lost time, kind of like I’m not missing anything at all.
“That’s what we’re hoping for. I wish I could keep racing, but soon enough we’ll be racing every week.”
Burton doesn’t turn 18 until October, so he will still be getting a significant amount of his experience this season in the ARCA Series until his birthday. But what time he has had behind the wheel in the Truck Series has certainly been productive – his learning curve obvious and impressive.
His last Camping World Truck Series race was here at Martinsville in November and Burton scored a career-best fourth-place finish. So he has specific and legitimate reason to be optimistic.
“I kind of get the last four races of the year at KBM, so I’m still kind of on a part-time schedule, jumping around and in the races that I can be,’’ said Burton, who will drive the No. 51 DEX Imaging Tundra. “There’s other guys in the mile-and-a-halves (races). It’s a balance. In between, I want to move up, but I got to learn too. I got time and I’m taking that time and learning as much as I can.
“I’ll make my first 1.5-mile starts in ARCA cars and stuff like that this year and I’ll also be running – I’ll run Texas and Homestead at the end of the year. Those will be fun in the Truck Series and hopefully we can go out and run good. It’s a different ball game. Like I said, short tracks, mile-and-a-halves, all that’s so different. It’s a big learning curve, but I’m ready for it.”
And this weekend’s “lessons” will come in a setting of good friends, who will also be the fiercest of competitors. Only one driver will hoist the trophy, but all three of these young talents are positioning themselves as winners.
“I think that’s been something that’s very special, just growing up with everyone you know,’’ Gilliland said. “Us three have raced against each other for a long time. We’re all very competitive and we’ve raced – me and Harrison have raced hard.
“We’re just out here doing our best and I think it helps having teammates that you get along with. You can communicate information a little bit better, a little bit easier. I think everything is just going to flow together this season and I think we’re going to have some fast trucks.”