Noah Gragson started the year so close to winning but kept falling short.
He was third at Daytona before consecutive runner-up finishes at Auto Club Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The No. 9 Chevrolet was finally able to burn it down in Phoenix — literally.
Gragson led a race-high 114 of 200 laps to clinch his first win of the NASCAR Xfinity Series season at Phoenix Raceway on Saturday afternoon.
Gragson, now a six-time Xfinity Series winner, made the final pass for the lead with 14 laps to go after rallying past Brandon Jones after the final round of green-flag pit stops and remains the series points leader.
In typical Gragson fashion, the celebration was one for the ages. The 23-year-old ripped donuts around Phoenix’s front stretch, sending smoke and rubber flying through the Arizona air. One tire chunk caught fire while Gragson was celebrating. Always the entertainer, Gragson used the makeshift campfire to warm his hands before climbing the catch fence with his JR Motorsports crew members.
“Caught the track on fire, which was awesome,” Gragson told FOX Sports. “But the pit crew executed great. This team has been on a roll so far this year, all top-three finishes in the first four races. I can’t thank everybody enough for all their hard work and try and keep it going.”
The final 100 laps of Saturday’s race went green, forcing green-flag pit stops to begin with roughly 40 laps to go. Jones short-pitted, coming to the attention of his crew two laps prior to Gragson in an attempt to leap-frog the leader. The strategy worked to perfection and he jumped out to a 1.2-second lead after trailing Gragson by over two seconds.
Gragson, though, tracked down the No. 19 Toyota and made the winning pass at Lap 187.
Only two cautions were displayed for on-track incidents Saturday. The first flew at Lap 22 when Riley Herbst lost brakes entering Turn 3. His brake pedal went to the floor and the No. 98 Ford snapped around, backing hard into the outside wall and ending the team’s day.
The second came at Lap 56 when Ty Gibbs was the recipient of left-rear contact from Josh Berry, sending the No. 54 Toyota sideways and spinning in front of traffic to start Stage 2. The field avoided Gibbs, and he rallied to finish sixth.
Stage 1 ended with a rousing photo finish between Gragson and polesitter Trevor Bayne. Gragson maintained the lead exiting Turn 2, but Bayne got a strong run and dove to Gragson’s left entering Turn 3. Bayne’s No. 18 fired into the corner and got just the run he needed to beat Gragson to the line by 0.008 seconds for the stage win, his second of 2022.
The finish of Stage 2 was far less dramatic — at least for the stage victory. As Gragson stormed away with the advantage, Jones and Justin Allgaier battled side-by-side with Bayne hot on their heels for second place. In the outside lane, Allgaier found the right momentum through the resin and edged Jones by 0.03 seconds for the spot.
Allgaier, who qualified 24th, was one of three JR Motorsports cars that started from the rear after making unapproved adjustments following qualifying, joining teammates Berry and Sam Mayer. Allgaier rocketed through the field, finishing sixth in the first stage and second in Stage 2.
Heading into the final round of pit stops, Allgaier was well inside the top five. But a pit-road penalty at Lap 165 for removing equipment from his stall forced the No. 7 car back to the pits for a pass-through penalty. The infraction destroyed his opportunity to win the race, but Allgaier did manage to hold on for a 10th-place finish, his 16th consecutive finish inside the top 10.
Behind Gragson and Jones were Berry, Bayne and John Hunter Nemechek. Rounding out the top 10 — and lead-lap drivers — were Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger, Daniel Hemric, Landon Cassill and Allgaier.
Note: Inspection is complete in the Xfinity Series garage, confirming Noah Gragson as the race winner. The Nos. 18 and 19 each had one lug nut not safe and secure. There were no other issues.