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Less than 10 years ago, Max Gresham had a sporty new junior dragster sitting in his driveway, a birthday gift courtesy of his grandfather.
“I never even made a pass,” said the 18-year-old Gresham. “I think I drove it once in a parking lot, and that was it. I feel like that would be an awesome thing to do, go drag racing – there's so many opportunities, so many routes I could have taken.
“But I'm pretty happy that I've been on the asphalt oval stock car circuit. It's shaped me into who I've become.”
What Gresham has become this season is a dominant force on the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. In his third season in the series, the Griffin, Ga., native has an 80-point lead over former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Brett Moffitt – in what has become a three-race drag race to the finish.
The series heads to historic Greenville Pickens Speedway in South Carolina on Labor Day, then returns to New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a track where Gresham won the pole and the race in July. Finally, the series concludes at Dover International Speedway at the end of the month.
Before he gets to Greenville, Gresham will take part in a special Future Stars For Future Fans autograph session at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The event, scheduled for 1 p.m. at the track's ticket office, will be open to the first 150 fans 16-and-under. It will include fellow NASCAR K&N Pro Series East drivers Sergio Pena, Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott, as well as select NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series drivers including Nationwide Series points leader Ricky Stenhouse, Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and RCR's Austin Dillon.
“The Joe Gibbs team is always good at Dover, and I should have won the race last year there, but I had some engine trouble,” Gresham said. “Greenville, we went and tested and learned a lot there last week. And New Hampshire, we're taking the same car back, the same everything, and hoping it's exactly the same as it was.”
But how the cars perform isn't really the most important thing now.
“I guess the biggest thing to guard against is people getting over-zealous and trying to get more than they can get, and myself trying to get more than I can get, too,” Gresham said. “Myself, my crew chief (Bryant Frazier) and my spotter, we all have to run the smartest races we can.
“It's just about finishing. We're the only team that's finished every race this year, and I think that's because we've been running smart races.”
Getting smarter, not necessarily faster, has been one of the biggest keys for Gresham. Speed has never been an issue for the driver of the JGR No. 18 Toyotas – he owns four wins in 22 career K&N Pro Series starts – but learning how to apply speed to the big picture took some learning.
The biggest of Max Gresham's four career NASCAR K&N Pro Series East wins came this summer at his family's track, Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Ga. Getty Images
“I've seen him grow quite a bit. It's a maturity factor for him, I think,” said John Close, who has worked with Gresham for the last several years. “He graduated from high school last year, he moved to Charlotte. He's really, really done well over the summer working at the (JGR) shop. Last year, I think he could tell the crew chief what was wrong with the car, but he couldn't always tell them how to fix it. Now, he can not just tell them what's wrong – but now he can make suggestions on what to do, too.
“He's more patient this year. He's always been fast, but now he has a better grasp of when to race and when not to race, so to speak.”
That grasp of when and when not to push the envelope has worked wonders. After a rough start to the year at Greenville in April, Gresham reeled off a seven-race stretch where he never finished worse than fourth. That's seven races – a stretch of some 800 laps of racing – where he never ended up worse than fourth best on the track.
With a run like that, it's no wonder Gresham has such a commanding lead in the standings after nine races. He's even surprised himself.
“I would like to say no, but honestly, I am a little surprised,” Gresham said. “It just shows you the great performances we've had. It's such a solid race team. Last year, we had a whole different mindset. We wanted to go out and win every race, but now we have a different approach. It's all about taking what we can get, finishing races and being there at the end.”
Gresham, who cut his teeth in Bandeleros, Legends and Late Models in the southeast, has started to branch out in his racing career. He made five ARCA starts at short tracks in 2010, winning at Mansfield in just his third start. This season, he moved to some of the big tracks – finishing second at Michigan in June and winning the pole and finishing sixth at Pocono last month.
He's not been intimidated in the least as the tracks have gotten bigger. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“As my (ARCA) crew chief Billy Venturini tells me, I'm so much better on the big tracks than on the short tracks,” Gresham said. “Sometimes I'm having such a good time driving, I forget to tell my crew chief what the car is doing. I'm just having fun. I don't really know what it is, but it's definitely shown this year.
“When I get the opportunity to move up, that's only going to help me. It's definitely been a confidence booster for me. I've surprised myself – but that's what I like to do every week, go out and see what I can do and surprise myself.”
And the driver who has K&N Pro Series East wins at South Boston, Iowa, New Hampshire and his home track of Gresham Motorsports Park, has stopped being labeled as a “surprise” by series observers.
“I think it has a lot to do with how the sport changes somewhat, especially as a young driver coming into it,” Gresham said. “Last year, it was more of a mindset that I'm with a great team with great cars, so I should be able to win every race. In reality, theres' a bunch of teams with great cars, too.
“This year it came into light. I realized I had to go out with a different mindset. The first couple of races, I had to hold the reins back a bit. As a team, we've become a lot smarter, and we're looking for solid finishes every place we go. If we can snag a win, we'll do it, but if not, we're going to fight to get everything we can for a finish.”
And quite a finish it's shaping up to be, one as exciting as a 3,000-horsepower dragster could produce.
Max Gresham takes an 80-point lead into the final three races of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East season. Getty Images