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Las Vegan lands full-time NASCAR Cup Series ride

Being named a full-time driver in the NASCAR Cup Series was such a big deal that Noah Gragson even got a haircut for the occasion.

“They made me cut it,” the Las Vegas native said Wednesday after being announced as the new driver of the Petty GMS No. 42 Chevrolet Camaro for the 2023 season, replacing Ty Dillon as veteran Erik Jones’ teammate. “They always say don’t change, but then they want me to change.”

But he seemed more than happy to change to a more aerodynamic coiffure to please his new team.

“Growing up racing in Las Vegas, it was a dream to race in the Cup Series. To be able to do that for Petty GMS is definitely a dream come true that hasn’t sunk in yet,” Gragson said about joining a group headed by NASCAR legend Richard Petty and Las Vegas businessman Maury Gallagher.

Gragson, 24, has 179 starts in NASCAR’s top three levels of competition, including nine in the Cup Series as a fill-in driver. His top Cup finish was 18th at Kansas Speedway in May.

He has eight wins (three this season), 52 top-five finishes and 85 top-1os in 123 starts in the Xfinity Series since joining JR Motorsports, a team owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. He also won twice in two full-time Truck Series seasons driving for fellow Las Vegan Kyle Busch.

The King is impressed

Petty said Gragson, noted for an on-track aggression that sometimes rubs competitors the wrong way, made a big impression by winning the Xfinity Series race before the 2020 Daytona 500.

“We got to sort of watching the No. 9 car (Gragson’s car number) over a period of time. I’ve seen improvement over what he’s been doing the last two, three years,” said the seven-time Daytona 500 winner and first driver to win seven season championships in NASCAR’s marquee series.

“I can say now he’s ready to run for a championship, and that’s what we’re looking for at the shop — a driver that can win championships.”

Las Vegas connection

Gallagher, chairman of Las Vegas-based Allegiant Travel Company, was not present for the announcement at the Petty GMS shop in Statesville, North Carolina. He said in a statement that he became aware of Gragson’s talent and potential long before his partner.

“I’ve watched Noah from a young age competing on the West Coast to now competing at NASCAR’s top level, and he’s shown the commitment, desire and ability to win at every level,” Gallagher said.

“As we move into our second year of competition in the Cup Series, Noah is a great fit for our organization. I think with Erik (Jones) and his experience, the two will prove to be contenders each week.”

Gragson will become the fourth driver from Las Vegas to compete full time in the Cup Series, joining former champions Kurt and Kyle Busch, who remain active, and Brendan Gaughan, who retired after the 2020 season.

“I don’t know if there’s something in the water or what it is. But there’s a lot of great drivers from the Vegas area,” Gragson said. “I have somewhat of a connection with Kurt and Kyle and Brendan … there’s a lot that come out of Vegas, and I just try to lean on everybody and learn from them and try to be better each and every day.”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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