When you end up in the proverbial doghouse with your boss, as Noah Gragson did with team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. in early July, it can be dang near impossible to find your way out.
Just ask Tyler Reddick, who — at least publicly — has been getting the cold shoulder from team owner Richard Childress ever since announcing in mid-July that he would leave Richard Childress Racing after the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season.
However, unlike Reddick, whose decision to abruptly reveal his future plans still seems to have Childress agitated, Gragson has found a way to get back into Earnhardt’s good graces.
July race at Road America was a low point for Noah Gragson
Since joining the NASCAR Xfinity Series with JR Motorsports in 2019, Noah Gragson has never shied away from controversy or been reluctant to show his true personality.
While these character traits can be endearing to fans and sponsors in an age when far too many drivers are uninspiring and robotic, Gragson’s proclivity for saying and doing whatever he wishes can sometimes come at a cost. One occasion when his tendency to mix it up landed him in particularly hot water came in the July 2 Xfinity Series race at Road America — a 4.048-mile road course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.
After making contact with the car of Sage Karam, Gragson retaliated by making an abrupt right-hand turn into Karam’s vehicle, triggering a crash that wiped out 13 cars and ultimately led to Gragson incurring both a $35,000 fine and a 30-point penalty from NASCAR.
But NASCAR officials were hardly the only ones upset by Gragson’s actions at Road America; his team owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., was also not amused, and he made those feelings known during an interview with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio the following week.
“I was shocked, to be honest with you, when I saw Noah make that decision,” Earnhardt said on SiriusXM. “I was completely shocked and in a bit of disbelief that not only he made that choice but that it created such an accident and got so many other guys involved. That was tough to watch. Really tough.”
Earnhardt Jr. — NASCAR’s 15-time Most Popular Driver before retiring from the sport in 2017 — made it clear that he also didn’t condone Gragson’s handling of the situation.
“I told him that I could stand behind him through just about anything, but I could not defend that,” Earnhardt explained. “That was just the message I gave him.”
‘Cup-ready’ Gragson appears to be pointed in the right direction again
Since Noah Gragson’s misguided decision at Road America, the 24-year-old Las Vegas native has cleaned up his act considerably.
Not only has Gragson steered clear of controversy, even partaking in a clean last-lap battle with rival Ty Gibbs at Pocono in July, but he’s also picked up a pair of victories — the most recent coming Saturday at Darlington Raceway where he edged Sheldon Creed and reigning Cup Series champion Kyle Larson in a chaotic three-way battle for the win.
Perhaps it says something about Gragson’s maturity and progression as a driver that his last seven victories — all recorded since the beginning of 2021 — have come at some of NASCAR’s most notoriously difficult places to win: Darlington, Richmond, Martinsville, Phoenix, Pocono, and Talladega.
“I just think that it says he’s Cup-ready,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said during his media availability following Gragson’s win at Darlington over the weekend. “When he first came to us, he was a very, very raw individual from top to bottom — on the track, off the track. He has personally been through a lot that I don’t think I even understand, and I think it’s pretty incredible, to be honest with you. We aren’t that far from the big mistake he made in the middle of the race at Road America. We’re not that far removed from that, and there’s still mistakes to be made. But he can correct them. He has some self-awareness, some genuine qualities, a great personality.”
Petty GMS, which captured Sunday’s Cup Series race at Darlington with driver Erik Jones, has also taken notice of Gragson’s potential. Last month, the organization offered Gragson a full-time Cup Series ride for 2023 in the company’s No. 42 Chevrolet now being driven by Ty Dillon.
Meanwhile, Earnhardt — Gragson’s current boss — has changed his tune considerably after being so highly critical of Gragson for the way things went down at Road America.
“One of the things about Noah that I kind of think gets unnoticed is that he came in here, and he definitely had some support from his family, but he went and made himself recognizable and created a persona and marketable,” he said at Darlington. “We had a partnership with Bass Pro Shops, and they fell in love with him. He did that; we didn’t do that. He did that by what he does, being himself, and they love it. The more crazy he can be, they love it. So whether intentional or not, he has developed this path that’s in front of him — himself — and so he deserves a lot of credit because he enjoys being himself. It’s great for business, it’s good for NASCAR, and they should seize on it.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. believes Noah Gragson has the potential for greatness
While Noah Gragson is certainly excited about going full-time NASCAR Cup Series racing in 2023, he first has some unfinished business to take care of in the Xfinity Series.
A four-time winner this season, he’s in the thick of the fight for his first Xfinity championship. But even if Gragson doesn’t ultimately claim the title in NASCAR’s No. 2 division, his future looks promising.
And it appears he’s learned from some of his past mistakes — especially the one at Road America, for which he later apologized to those involved. If Gragson can continue to make wise choices, he has a chance to be the kind of driver who makes more people want to follow the sport. And this will especially be the case as he moves into a full-time Cup Series role and more fans get to know him.
“I think he’s one of the more recognizable, unique, fun guys in the industry,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “So if he can find some kind of success at the Cup level, man, he will be a great asset to NASCAR because of what he’s willing to do. He’s willing to get attention, and he has fun. As long as he can stay on the right path emotionally and make good decisions, he’s got a really great opportunity in front of him — that he created.”
That’s pretty high praise, especially considering that just two months ago, Earnhardt wasn’t exactly pleased with Gragson.
“I’m pretty impressed by the ability that he has to get these sponsors … to get behind him and really like what he does, and fans are digging it,” Earnhardt said. “He’s got a lot of people that might not love him — all the good drivers had people that definitely hated them — so you’re never going to have the whole crowd behind you, but he’s certainly got some people that love to see him do well and support him.”
Including his boss.