By Cole Cusumano
AVONDALE, Ariz. — Exiting Martinsville Speedway last weekend, it was evident why it’s the site of the penultimate race before Championship Weekend. The world witnessed two action-packed, walk-off victories from a pair of the most promising young talents in NASCAR’s developmental series: Noah Gragson and Zane Smith.
Both Gragson and Smith entered in must-win situations and essentially mirrored each other in the closing stages of the events. Only 11 months apart in age, the two West Coast drivers are best friends and found their way into Championship 4 for the second consecutive season.
“We were both in the same situation [at Martinsville] and it was so weird watching his race as well,” Smith told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “It literally was a replay of the truck race with how he kind of controlled that final stage, got passed with 20 to go or something, a late race caution came out and he won — the same as me.
“We grew up racing together at the Bullring in Las Vegas, racing NASCAR: Inside Line, hoping one day we’d both make it. What are the chances of us both being in the same situation and pulling it off? It’s wild how the world works, but I’m super happy for him.”
To add another element of synergy, both Gragson and Smith came up just short in 2020, placing runner-up in their respective finales at Phoenix Raceway. Could these statement victories propel them to a spot in NASCAR’s history books in the Valley of the Sun?
Beginning with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series finale taking place on November 5, Smith has always had a great handle on Phoenix in his young career. In addition to finishing runner-up last season and leading 48 laps at the one-mile track, he posted a top-five finish in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in his only other start in Avondale.
As for 2021, it’s been a trying season for the 22-year-old. While speed has been evident, good fortune hasn’t been on his side. Even without the dominance of last year, Smith tied his career-best in top-10s with 13 in winning his first race at Martinsville.
“I feel like I have more momentum than anybody,” Smith said. “I feel like just momentum in this sport is huge. Once you get one [win], they come so much easier. Winning is as contagious as losing is. That’s how I look at it at least.”
On the Xfinity side, similarly to his friend, Gragson has had an up-and-down season with less inconsistency than Smith. A bulk of the No. 9 team’s woes occurred early in the season and they’ve now gotten hot at the perfect time.
Gragson scored his career-best third win of the season at Martinsville, and while victories are important, how he earned it was very telling. The 23-year-old has a reputation for being one of the most aggressive drivers on track, but you would have never guessed that with how he handled an overtime restart at a venue notorious for bump-and-runs.
Opting for the undesirable outside lane on the final restart of the race, Gragson showcased a newfound on-track maturity by simply firing off quickly and muscling his way around reigning champion, Austin Cindric, to punch his ticket into the Championship 4.
“I think it was big,” Gragson told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “It was kind of eye-opening for myself like, ‘hey, this is a big pressure moment,’ and we did it. I think that’s definitely a stepping stone to what it is to win a championship.
“It’s really challenging to make it to the final four and there’s a lot of great race car drivers out there. I’m thankful to have the team to do it, and without them I don’t think it would be possible.
“We’re motivated, we’re fired up and we’re ready to go contend for it.”
Even with the statement victories from Gragson and Smith, both enter as underdogs compared to the likes of Cindric and John Hunter Nemechek. Only time will tell if momentum and composure will pay dividends for the young drivers, but regardless, they both have a legitimate shot at a championship.
You can catch Smith in his quest for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship at 8 p.m. ET on FS1 on November 5 and Gragson’s bid for the NASCAR Xfinity Series title on November 6 at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.