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Noah Gragson takes NASCAR field to school on Utah road course

It’s easy to forget how young Noah Gragson still is, given the skill and acumen and occasional swagger with which he handles a brutish 3,000-plus-pound stock car.

Take this week. When trying to reach the Las Vegas youngster to chat about sweeping a NASCAR K&N Pro West Series doubleheader at Utah Motorsports Campus, he texted to say he would call at 2 p.m.

“At school right now,” was the message.

Oops. Forgot about classes, kid. Hope you aren’t assigned to write about the Louisiana Purchase until after racing season.

If NASCAR had a Ridgemont High, Mr. Hand would have given the 18-year-old A-pluses for how he turned left and right and mashed the gas pedal when it was called for on the 3.048-mile road circuit near Salt Lake City.

On Saturday, Gragson took the lead from fellow young hotshot Todd Gilliland with nine laps to go en route to his first Pro West victory of 2016. The next day, he was even more impressive, rallying from midpack to overhaul Gilliland again, this time with a last-corner pass for the win.

In May, Gragson and Gilliland were named to NASCAR Next, an annual list of young drivers projected for stardom. Of the 35 drivers who have made NASCAR Next, 27 have gone on to drive in one of the top three series: Cup, Xfinity, Trucks.

But auto racing, even on the introductory rungs of the stock-car ladder, can test a young man’s soul.

After qualifying fifth the last time out, at venerable Greenville-Pickens Speedway in South Carolina, Gragson thought he had turned a literal and figurative corner. But when the race started under different track conditions, he found he couldn’t keep pace.

Once again he didn’t win.

Once again his soul was tested.

Not to mention his tires.

“I was kind of bummed after that race,” said Gragson, who drives the No. 7 Jefferson Pitts Racing Speedvegas Ford. “I was lacking in confidence, but last weekend changed everything.”

Perhaps beating Gilliland wasn’t a long time coming, but it was a little time coming. In July, Gragson had finished second to the third-generation driver by inches — .004 of a second — in a Pro West race at Stateline Speedway in Idaho.

Gragson said Gilliland is a pretty good driver who also benefits from a strong support program. Sponsorship, mechanics, crew chief, etc. All with nice uniforms. Racing on a road course, where the driver is a bigger factor than the car, can be an equalizer.

“Exactly,” Gragson said. “You don’t take the car out of the equation, but it’s probably 30 percent car, 60 to 70 percent driver. That’s why I think we won.”

LAS VEGAS MOTOR SPEEDWAY

• Sage Karam, who has driven in the past three Indianapolis 500s and is trying to make it back as a regular on the open-wheel circuit, has been keeping sharp at the Bullring driving Legends cars. The 21-year-old has finished fourth and eighth in two starts.

• Race-day tickets for the 2017 NASCAR Kobalt 400 went on sale this week; click on lvms.com or call 1-800-644-4444. The race is March 12.

• Next up at the Bullring: Championship Night on Sept. 24. Track champions will be crowned in a veritable plethora of divisions.

NASCAR

• You might have missed it because the NFL season was kicking off, but the field for the Chase for the Championship has been set. Locals Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch are among 16 drivers still eligible for the title that Kyle hopes to successfully defend.

• “NASCAR Heat Next Generation,” a new iteration of an old video game, is now available on Playstation 4 and Xbox. Said veteran Brad Keselowski, the most recent winner of the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway: “It’s a lot cheaper and doesn’t hurt as much when I wreck.” http://c.brightcove.com/services/viewer/federated_f9?isVid=1&isUI=1

ELSEWHERE

• James Hinchcliffe, lead driver for Henderson car owner Sam Schmidt’s IndyCar team, and pro partner Sharna Burgess fox-trotted to a first-place tie in the preliminary round of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” before protesters rushed the stage to confront Olympic swimmer/celebrity hoofer Ryan Lochte.

• Bob Gordon, father of NASCAR and IndyCar veteran Robby Gordon, and wife Sharon were found dead in their Orange, California, home Wednesday. Detectives are calling it murder-suicide. Baja Bob Gordon was an off-road racing champion during his driving prime; his daughter Beccy is married to Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. His motor sports notebook runs on Friday. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski

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