On Saturday (Aug. 5) the NASCAR Cup Series was walloped by the news that rookie Noah Gragson had been suspended. The reason? ‘Liking’ a meme on Instagram.
Could this situation present an opportunity to catapult the fledgling rookie’s career to new heights?
Does that sound like a crazy question right now? Well, there is precedent for it to happen. But first, how did we get here? Then, how do we get there?
Gragson didn’t ‘like’ just any average meme. I won’t go into too many specifics here. In short, it was a very controversial meme that attempted to make light of the death of George Floyd.
For the young and embattled rookie from Las Vegas who sits 33rd in Cup points, this appears to be a giant career setback. Conversely, almost exactly one year ago, he was on top of the world.
Since then, not much has gone according to plan. Petty GMS was rebranded during the off-season and is now known as Legacy Motor Club. Maury Gallagher stayed on as an owner but was joined by seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. Richard Petty, meanwhile, was reduced to ‘team ambassador.’
TRD President David Wilson said, “We also look forward to being reunited with our old friends, Erik Jones and Noah Gragson.”
They both had history racing for Toyota in the not-too-distant past.
When that announcement was made, Gragson was off to a dreadful start to his rookie year. His best finish through those first 11 races was 12th at Atlanta Motor Speedway; his next best finish being 20th at Circuit of the Americas. The lame-duck status with Chevrolet had likely been contributing to the team’s lack of performance.
The next race after the Toyota announcement was Kansas Speedway. Here, Gragson’s season began to go from bad to worse. In the race’s final stage, he was racing three-wide with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ross Chastain inside the top 15. Chastain washed up the track and altered Gragson’s path, leading him to get into the wall and sustain damage that resulted in a 29th-place finish.
After the race, sporting a bowl cut he donned after Austin Dillon bet him he wouldn’t, Gragson confronted Chastain on pit road. After grabbing Chastain, Gragson was on the receiving end of a hard punch from the ‘Melon Man.’ Before Gragson could retaliate, the two drivers were separated.
The rookie received mixed reviews for this. Some said it was past due for another driver to confront Chastain. Others thought Gragson made himself look silly, getting punched in the face while his bowl cut flopped around wildly. The clip of the punch became one of, if not the, most viral moment of the season thus far.
A few weeks later at World Wide Technology Raceway, Gragson finished 33rd after a hard crash. He was diagnosed with a concussion and missed the following race at Sonoma Raceway. Since his return, he’s finished no better than 22nd.
On Aug. 1, Jordan Bianchi of The Athletic reported that Gragson could be replaced at Legacy Motor Club by John Hunter Nemechek, who has been on a tear in the NASCAR Xfinity Series driving for Toyota flagship Joe Gibbs Racing.
Gragson was in the midst of a slide rarely seen in the sport. Right when it seemed he was nearing rock bottom, the liking of the meme came to light and the suspension was levied.
Now, back to the question at hand. How could a struggling, suspended and always controversial driver parlay this event into a boon for his career?
Allow me to introduce NASCAR champion Kyle Larson and 2022 Academy of Country Music Awards ‘Album of the Year’ winner Morgan Wallen.
Larson was suspended for the balance of the 2020 season after uttering a racial slur on an iRacing livestream. He was ultimately fired by Chip Ganassi Racing, where he had driven since 2014. He was then hired by powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports in 2021 and won 10 races that season along with his first championship.
The comparison isn’t exactly equal. Larson’s offense was arguably more severe than Gragson’s. Larson casually said a word that is universally recognized as a terrible thing to say. Gragson simply clicked a like button on a meme that presumably came up on his Instagram feed.
Larson is considered a generational talent and perhaps the greatest racecar driver in the United States. Gragson isn’t. But Gragson’s racing credentials aren’t bad either. In 2022, he won eight races in the Xfinity Series and finished second in points by narrowly losing a championship battle with Ty Gibbs. Over the course of four full-time Xfinity seasons, Gragson amassed 93 top 10s (about 70% of the time) with an average finish better than 10th.
Some will point out that Gragson’s success in NASCAR’s equivalent of AAA baseball was a result of having a superior team and car. But his successor in that same Xfinity Series car, series veteran Brandon Jones, is currently 13th in the standings with zero wins and just two top fives. There is no doubting Gragson has talent to compete in the Cup Series.
Wallen had his own controversy similar to Larson’s. He was caught on camera uttering the same racial slur after a night of binge drinking. He was subsequently deemed ineligible for the 56th annual Academy of Country Music Awards and had his songs temporarily taken out of rotation at radio stations around the country.
The One Thing at a Time singer saw his career rise to new heights amid the controversy, as fans new and old rallied behind him in protest of the phenomenon known as ‘cancel culture.’ His next two albums went to number one on the charts and have been certified platinum.
Larson and Wallen both apologized for their mistakes. Gragson has taken ownership for his actions and admitted fault. Larson’s comeback followed an off-season of charity work, education and soul-searching. Wallen’s came in part after he was adopted by one faction of the ongoing culture wars in America.
Country music and NASCAR have a lot of crossover among their fans. Gragson will need a lot to go right moving forward, but he has an opportunity. This setback and the notoriety that has come with it could turn the Las Vegas native into one of the most popular drivers in the sport.
In order for that to happen, he will have to walk a line. He will need to be thoughtful and remorseful enough to be accepted by a team who depends on multi-million-dollar sponsorships from huge companies like Wendy’s to compete.
If and when he is accepted back into the driver’s seat, he will have to perform to and above expectations. While Legacy Motor Club struggled mightily in the first half of the season, it’s run better lately. Most of the improvement has been courtesy of Gragson’s teammate Jones. Gragson will need to show his talent is worth the controversy. He’ll need to drive like his career depends on it.
He will have to do all of that without losing all of who he is. This lightning rod of controversy is one of the greatest examples of the Xfinity Series tagline, “Names are Made Here.” His aggressive style, animated antics, brash soundbites and excellent performance made him one of the more popular drivers in that series in recent memory. Polarizing, yes, but popular.
The future remains unclear. As of today (Aug. 7), Gragson is indefinitely suspended not only by his team but also by NASCAR. What will the team and the sanctioning body put forth as terms of his reinstatement? Will he acquiesce to those terms? How long will they take to be completed? Will sponsors allow themselves to be associated with him? When he returns, how will he handle himself in the inevitably countless interviews that will ask about the controversy, with or without political angles in their questioning?
The 25-year-old recent phenom from Las Vegas is at a crossroads. He is now more well-known than ever before, even if its more infamy than fame. What will he do with it?
People love a good comeback. People love a good redemption story. They love underdogs. Somewhere in the multitude of paths forward exists a chance for Gragson to become one of the sport’s biggest stars.
About the author
Steve Leffew joined Frontstretch in 2023, and covers the Xfinity Series. He resides in Wisconsin and has been a NASCAR fan as long as he can remember. He has served honorably in the United States Air Force and works during the week as a Real Estate Lender.
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