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NASCAR 101: Catch & Release(d)

Of all the unpredictable storylines to come out of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, the saga of Noah Gragson has certainly shot itself to the top of the list in the last week or so.

Gragson had been a phenom in the developmental series of the sport, narrowly missing out on the NASCAR Xfinity Series title last year. That’s why Gragson was touted as a hotshot rookie coming into this season after signing with Legacy Motor Club, a promising team fresh off a rebrand and a new high-profile ownership partner in NASCAR Hall of Famer Jimmie Johnson.

But 2023 has not been a great year for Gragson, who shot straight to the bottom of the points standings and now sits suspended after a liking a meme on social media featuring George Floyd. This week, Gragson asked for his release from the No. 42.

That’s something a driver rarely accomplishes these days in NASCAR: getting released from their team during the season.

Drivers being removed from their rides during the season is not new, of course. They have been released for all sorts of things: performance issues, suspensions and/or legal troubles, and ownership difficulties, just to name a few. The most infamous example: the 1979 mid-season split between David Pearson and Wood Brothers Racing. In fact, it used to be quite common.

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Take 2007, for instance. When team owner Bobby Ginn of Ginn Racing ran out of money, his drivers Sterling Marlin and Joe Nemechek were sent looking for other rides after the 19th race of the season. Three races later, Kenny Wallace was dumped from Furniture Row Racing after poor performance, and before season’s end, Jeff Green and Scott Riggs were axed from their teams.

A year later, Patrick Carpentier, Michael McDowell, Dario Franchitti, Jeremy Mayfield, AJ Allmendinger, Ken Schrader and JJ Yeley were all sent packing before the season reached its final race.

But after 2008, drivers being axed became sort of archaic. Since the 2009 season, only five drivers have lost their full-season ride while the year was still in progress.

This could be attributed to a variety of factors, including the rapid downsizing of teams following the 2008 financial crash, the lack of available talent to take over, driver-tied sponsorships and cost saving measures.

Another cause has been the implementation of the knockout and win-and-you’re-in style of playoff formats, where even if a competitor has a lousy season, there is still optimism that a driver can win a race in the first 26 weekends, which serves as an automatic qualifier to be amongst the select few eligible to win the championship comes season’s end.

But for those five drivers before Gragson, the reasons for their dismissals varied widely.

2009: David Stremme

Once touted as a hot young driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing orbit, David Stremme left the team after 2008 and signed with Team Penske for 2009. It was a team that was riding high off a multi-win season from Kurt Busch and a Daytona 500 crown via Ryan Newman.

However, Stremme’s tenure was dismal, coming nowhere close to the level of teammate Busch’s performance. With the team eyeing a new prospect in Brad Keselowski for 2010, Penske let Stremme go after Talladega Superspeedway and put Keselowski in the car early once he was finished with his commitments at Hendrick Motorsports.

It is safe to say that Penske made the right decision.

2012: AJ Allmendinger

Allmendinger was suspended from NASCAR in 2012 following a positive drug test prior to the summer race at Daytona. Even though he was enjoying arguably the most respectable season of his career, Penske quickly ousted him following the suspension.

Allmendinger was thus left in a position to piece together rides together and attempt to rebuild his career. Once the suspension was lifted later that season, he landed some races at Phoenix Racing but was never again on the same consistent performance level at Penske.

2014: Ryan Truex

Fast-forward five years to when Ryan Truex was stuck in his lackluster rookie season at BK Racing. The younger brother of 2017 Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. had scored a best finish of 20th.

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For Ryan Truex, 2014 was a season best remembered for Parker Kligerman landing on him at Daytona International Speedway and a practice crash at Michigan International Speedway that left him sidelined for a race due to a concussion.

When Travis Kvapil appeared on the entry list for a race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in his place, many wondered if Truex was experiencing concussion symptoms again. However, Truex eventually revealed a handful of races later that he was out at BK.

2018: Trevor Bayne (sort of)

Trevor Bayne fell victim to some unique circumstances in 2018. After struggling mightily, Roush Fenway Racing (now RFK Racing) was looking for options to improve performance.

Instead of fully releasing him, the organization took away Bayne’s full-time duties of the No. 6 Ford and called up the then-retired Matt Kenseth to split the remainder of the season with Bayne to help achieve a performance uptick.

Ultimately, this did not pay off, and Bayne was ultimately cut from the team at season’s end while simultaneously Kenseth left the organization voluntarily.

2020: Kyle Larson

When Kyle Larson used a racial slur on an iRacing event during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, CGR quickly released him from his contract.

Arguably the most talented driver in the garage, Larson was left without a ride once the season resumed. The Californian was ultimately relegated to racing dirt cars during the remainder of the year.

Ultimately, his release and suspension led to his big break. Larson signed with Hendrick Motorsports in 2021 and brought home his first championship that season.

2023: Noah Gragson

With the suspended Gragson’s career at a crossroads, it remains to be seen where he will end up. Will he find a top team who will sign him like Larson? Will he be relegated back to the developmental series like Ryan Truex? Will he have to string together rides together just to keep his career alive like Allmendinger? Will he just fade into obscurity like Stremme? Or will he become a TV personality like Bayne

Stay tuned.

About the author

Never at a loss for words, Zach Gillispie is a young, talented marketing professional from North Carolina who talks and writes on the side about his first love: racing! Since joining Frontstretch in 2018, Zach has served in numerous roles where he currently pens the NASCAR 101 column, a weekly piece delving into the basic nuts and bolts of the sport. Additionally, his unabashedly bold takes meshed with that trademarked dry wit of his have made Zach a fan favorite on the weekly Friday Faceoff panel. In his free time, he can be found in the great outdoors, actively involved in his church, cheering on his beloved Atlanta Braves or ruthlessly pestering his colleagues with completely useless statistics about Delma Cowart.

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John

Does anyone really believe that Noah asked to be released ? And what exactly is the “rehab” he will need to go through for clicking “like” ? I’m asking out of ignorance as I have employees guilty of the same things and I don’t want them to quit.

kb

Unfortunately, the only thing in my opinion that Noah did wrong was to apologize. He never should have caved to this woke nonsense because of some petty little person being a tattletale jerk for no other reason than being a small, mean spirited ahole. IMO. Is he still employed at this site? Hope not. This whole situation is just the sign of these sick, twisted times. And no, I am fan of this driver.

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