He’s brazen, brash, and a little bit on the cocky side. He’s a prankster and a fighter. He often sports a retro-style mullet haircut, and he’ll say just about anything on his mind and wreck just about anyone in his way. And, oh yeah: He’s also pretty dang good at driving race cars. Say hello to 24-year-old Noah Gragson, the latest driver to earn a much-deserved promotion to NASCAR’s premier division.
With Wednesday’s announcement from Petty GMS that Gragson will wheel the two-car organization’s No. 42 Chevrolet next season, the NASCAR Cup Series is getting a driver who isn’t afraid to speak his mind and ruffle feathers on occasion. But even more importantly, the Cup Series is getting a guy whose honesty and openness are nothing less than a breath of fresh air in a sport where drivers are all too often so concerned about saying the wrong thing that they say nothing at all. Well, unless you consider regurgitating a list of sponsors every week actually saying something meaningful and from the heart.
News flash: It isn’t. And it never will be. This is why the Cup Series needs Gragson as a full-time driver more than Gragson needs the Cup Series.
Many of today’s Cup Series drivers aren’t as authentic as their predecessors
Aside from Kyle Busch and – at least in recent times – Denny Hamlin, few drivers in today’s Cup Series field are willing to consistently make statements that might be perceived as politically incorrect or challenging to NASCAR’s status quo.
It seems that, whether it be due to fear of losing a sponsor or upsetting NASCAR or their team owner, many of today’s drivers go out of their way not to rock the proverbial boat or do anything to jeopardize their future or their standing in the sport.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong, of course, with trying to be courteous and polite, the lack of candor from various Cup Series drivers can easily be perceived by fans as insincere. Or, to put it another way: A lot of today’s Cup drivers are way too vanilla.
“Yeah, you have to be robotic these days,” Noah Gragson said late last year when I asked him in a one-on-one interview if he thought the fear of offending sponsors was causing drivers not to show their true personalities.
Sadly, the most robotic drivers tend to get a fair amount of air time. Take, for example, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Austin Cindric, Aric Almirola, Erik Jones, Chase Briscoe, and Christopher Bell. When was the last time you heard one of these drivers say anything remotely controversial or even interesting? (OK, Elliott did clash memorably with Kevin Harvick last season, but that’s water under the bridge now.) Even veteran drivers like Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski, who used to be lightning rods for controversy, have turned mellow in their later years, seemingly unwilling to stir the pot in the least bit.
Gone are the Tony Stewarts and Darrell Waltrips and Dale Earnhardts and Rusty Wallaces of the world who, for most of their respective careers, never shied away from stepping on toes, whether it be NASCAR’s or those of their competitors. Many of today’s drivers seem to be taking their cues from seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson who – for all his talent and success – always lacked the personality to grow a huge fan base.
Gragson, however, marches to the beat of a much different drummer than Johnson and many in today’s crop of young up-and-comers. Simply put: He doesn’t know how not to be his true self.
“It takes too much effort to fake it,” Gragson told me in late December. “It takes too much time and effort to fake it or be someone you’re not. I’ve never really believed in being someone you’re not or trying to be something else. I just kind of go day by day and do what I like to do and have fun and enjoy the moment and try to make the most of the opportunities that I have.”
Noah Gragson is the comical and the confrontational all rolled into one
Since Noah Gragson went full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series racing for Dale Earnhardt Jr. co-owned JR Motorsports in 2019, he’s enjoyed great success on the track, where he’s won eight races and been in championship contention on multiple occasions.
But what’s really distinguished Gragson from many of his competitors is acting out – whether it be in the form of a fistfight, a practical joke, or wrecking a rival or even a teammate.
In the summer of 2020, Gragson did wreck a teammate when he crashed fellow JR Motorsports driver Justin Allgaier for the win with five laps to go at Bristol Motor Speedway. Gragson has also had run-ins with Ty Gibbs, Myatt Snider, Harrison Burton, and Daniel Hemric – just to name some of his more familiar foes. In the case of Burton and Hemric, Gragson literally came to blows with them.
In the case of Gibbs, Gragson vowed retaliation after a dustup on the road course at Portland International Raceway in early June. “We’ll take care of that,” Gragson told Frontstretch.com. “You’ll know when I get him back.” During the same interview, Gragson also took the opportunity to throw shade at the racetrack.
“I’m honestly not very impressed with this place, to say the least,” Gragson said. “It’s pretty challenging for the teams to afford coming all the way across the country, and then on top of that, the way the track is designed, everybody just tears their stuff up, and it costs everybody a ton of money.
“I think three-quarters of the field are torn up and destroyed, and that’s just a product of a not-very-well-configured race track, in my opinion.”
Then there was the now-infamous moment at Road America in early July when Gragson triggered a 13-car wreck by deliberately turning across the track into Sage Karam in retaliation for some earlier contact. Gragson’s actions in that instance were so egregious that he even drew a stern rebuke from JR Motorsports co-owner Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“I was shocked, to be honest with you, when I saw Noah make that decision,” Earnhardt said during an appearance on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio a few days later. “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.”
And Earnhardt also didn’t hesitate to personally let Gragson know how he felt above the move.
“I told him that I could stand behind him through just about anything, but I could not defend that,” Earnhardt said. “That was just the message I gave him.”
However, the same Gragson who has struggled at times to harness his emotions is also quite the class clown. A perfect example of this took place in October 2020 when Gragson – clad in sunglasses and a Kyle Busch jacket and hat – showed up at a Busch fan day to seek an autograph from his old NASCAR Camping World Truck Series boss.
As seen on Youtube, it wasn’t until the two posed together for a photo and Gragson started rubbing Busch on the head that Busch knew Gragson’s true identity. The two then enjoyed a good laugh.
Another comical Gragson moment occurred at a JR Motorsports autograph signing in 2019 when Gragson secretly convinced 19 fans to skip over Justin Allgaier in the autograph line, acting as though they didn’t recognize Allgaier or he wasn’t even sitting there.
Noah Gragson still has some maturing to do, but his personality will boost the Cup Series
During Wednesday’s announcement at Petty GMS headquarters in Statesville, North Carolina, Noah Gragson fought back tears as he considered the significance of the occasion.
“It’s pretty surreal to be able to go full-time Cup racing,” a visibly touched Gragson said in a video tweet from the official Petty GMS Twitter account. “I’m kind of emotional a little bit. I don’t know. It’s probably not emotional for anyone else, but for me, just telling that story, I’m kind of choking up right now.”
But the same Noah Gragson who is so genuinely grateful for this opportunity is the same Noah Gragson who will rough up a competitor on the track or engage in all-out fisticuffs without even flinching.
“We might have to calm him down a little bit, but the way that Cup racing is now, he’s got to be aggressive,” said Petty GMS chairman and all-time Cup Series wins leader Richard Petty at Wednesday’s press conference announcing Gragson’s hiring. “I think from that standpoint, I just hope that we can calm him down where he’s not too aggressive, but he’s going to be in a learning process because the Xfinity Series is a little bit different crowd of people. They race different.
“When it comes to Cup, he’s going to have to learn to respect his other drivers, and he’s going to have to respect them. So it’s going to be interesting.”
It always is interesting with Gragson. And for that, everyone – especially NASCAR – should be thankful.