Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: Is this the Real Noah Gragson?

Noah Gragson’s post-race interviews have never lacked raw emotion. Whether basking in the jubilation of victory or agonizing over a close loss, you always knew that Gragson felt the weight of the moment.

Such was the case when Gragson climbed out of his No. 10 Ford after a sixth-place result at Dover Motor Speedway on Sunday (April 28). But instead of excitement or frustration, gratitude was the overwhelming feeling in Gragson’s comments.

“This Millertech team doesn’t give up,” Gragson said. “There’s no quit in this 10 team, and (I am) extremely thankful and grateful to be a part of it. Appreciate all the work by all you guys back at the shop at Stewart-Haas. It’s nice to come home sixth at a place where I’ve really struggled.

“This was probably my worst track last year, so to be able to come back and finish sixth, after qualifying fifth, it was an up and down road. But, extremely thankful to this 10 team and appreciate all you fans.”

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Gragson has not become a weekly NASCAR Cup Series contender, but he is performing better than expected after a disastrous rookie season with Legacy Motor Club. In the first 11 races of this season, he has already posted four top 10s after never finishing better than 12th in 21 starts last year. Gragson’s good run at Dover allowed him to jump six spots in the points standings to 21st.

That position includes a 35-point penalty assessed to the No. 10 team at Atlanta Motor Speedway after NASCAR confiscated the car’s roof rails early in the weekend. If Gragson had those points back, he would be below the playoff cut line by only 45 points.

While Gragson and Stewart-Haas Racing have room for improvement, they are off to a respectable start for a driver and team who faced a lot of questions, and doubts, at the beginning of the season.

Gragson’s new role with SHR is just the latest twist in a career that’s offered no lack of surprises. In the relatively short time that he has competed in NASCAR, Gragson’s stock as a prospect has risen and fallen so many times that it’s become hard to predict how he will perform year-to-year. Proponents of Gragson have suggested that he has the speed on the track and engaging personality off it to become a star.

Others have argued that Gragson lacks the race craft and emotional maturity to be competitive in the Cup Series. While there is evidence to support both arguments, the crux of the issue is that Gragson’s career trajectory has changed so many times that the forecasts about his future in NASCAR have come too early. We have never seen the real Noah Gragson.

Certainly, Gragson gave his doubters plenty of ammunition last year. He and LMC did not show speed on any type of track and every time he was in the news, it always for something bad. The lowlights included a post-race scuffle with Ross Chastain at Kansas Speedway and multiple crashes in turn 6 during the Chicago street course race.

But what ultimately cut Gragson’s rookie season short was a suspension from LMC and NASCAR for liking a controversial meme on social media. The fallout from this incident led to Gragson requesting that LMC release him from his contract, a request that was granted a few days later.

Gragson’s fiasco of a rookie season left him with few options for 2024. In addition to the social media controversy, he wound up shouldering much of the blame for the No. 42 car’s struggles. It did not help his case that Carson Hocevar, then 20 years old with only one prior Cup Series start, scored four top 20s in his first four starts as a fill-in driver of the No. 42.

Yet it is also important to note that LMC was far down the Chevrolet pecking order and preparing to make the switch to Toyota for 2024. There is no sugarcoating Gragson’s poor results last year, but he was not in a situation where many rookies would have succeeded.

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Additionally, it was surprising to see so many people give up on Gragson after his successful run in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. At age 20, he landed with JR Motorsports following two seasons in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports. He stayed with JRM for four seasons and, each year, ran a little bit better than he did the previous year. Gragson went from zero wins in 2019 to two in 2020, to three in 2021, and finally to a monster eight-win season in 2022.

He made the Xfinity playoffs all four seasons and reached the championship race in 2021 and 2022, but came up short of the title in both years. Along the way, he ruffled some feathers and developed a reputation as a hothead, but he also proved that he could win races consistently with time to adjust, and with the right team.  

Gragson’s time with JR Motorsports feels like a more accurate representation of what he can accomplish in NASCAR than his lousy rookie season in the Cup Series. Some fans will argue that JRM’s equipment gave Gragson a massive advantage. While Gragson obviously had faster cars than many of his competitors, attributing all of his success to JRM does not account for the year-to-year improvement he showed.

The cars do not drive themselves, and nobody else in the history of JRM has ever won more than five races in a season. Gragson was clearly doing something right and deserved a chance at the Cup Series, even though that first chance ended in controversy.

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So far, Gragson’s move to SHR is working out OK. The Gragson/SHR union was understandably met with skepticism by some fans, given the Cup Series struggles of both parties. It is also fair to point out that Gragson’s familial wealth probably played a role in him getting the No. 10 after the departure of Aric Almirola and long-time sponsor Smithfield.

Yet nearly a third of the way through the season, Gragson has stayed out of trouble, posted respectable results, and has likely experienced some personal growth after the events of last year. These may be small steps, but they are reminiscent of the upward trajectory he showed in the Xfinity Series.

The one thing that Gragson really needs is time to adjust to his new team, and for SHR to shore up its ship after its own disappointing 2023. As rumors of SHR downsizing continue to swirl, he may not get that opportunity.

But even if Gragson lands somewhere else in 2025, it feels like his stock is back on the upswing. Hopefully, his second chance at the Cup Series will finally reveal the real Gragson to the NASCAR world.     

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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