Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: Noah Gragson’s Comeback Story Amid Stewart-Haas Racing Circus

Did You Notice? … Noah Gragson is already NASCAR’s Comeback Driver of the Year?

Just nine months after a suspension from the sport threatened to derail his career, Gragson is pulling a Kyle Larson 2.0 and putting a season together that’s worthy of his promotion to the NASCAR Cup Series.

Twelve races into the year, Gragson has five top-10 finishes, leaving him 19th in points and within striking distance of a postseason bid. He’s currently 71 points behind playoff bubble driver Brad Keselowski, a deficit that would be just 36 if not for a faulty roof air deflector penalty assessed at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

See also
5 Points to Ponder: Gimme More (Kansas)

That leaves Gragson on pace for 15 top 10s with a team that’s only been improving as the year’s gone on. He’s currently on a run of three straight top 10s, including an impressive 36th-to-third, career-best performance at Talladega Superspeedway last month.

Off the track, Gragson remains popular with fans but reformed after NASCAR’s decision to suspend him following what they deemed offensive activity on social media. Gragson was released from his deal at Legacy Motor Club days later, ending a tumultuous rookie season in Cup where he posted just a single top-15 finish in 21 starts.

Now, he’s saying all the right things, positive and optimistic in media interviews while shying away from controversy. While a little blander, you don’t get the feeling he’s lost an edgy personality that’s endeared him to NASCAR’s fan base.

It’s a situation similar to Larson, who got fired by Chip Ganassi Racing in 2020 for using a racial slur in an online race. Larson took his time to take a step back, embrace NASCAR’s rehabilitation program and learn from his mistakes. He rebounded the following year with 10 wins and the 2021 Cup title, easily the strongest season of his career filled with newfound purpose and ambition.

Gragson isn’t quite championship caliber just yet. But in some ways, the year he’s produced with new employer Stewart-Haas Racing is even more extraordinary than what Larson accomplished.

Larson, of course, leveled up by aligning with the winningest race team in NASCAR history, Hendrick Motorsports. He was surrounded by the best personnel, top-tier equipment and given every resource necessary to succeed.

Compare that to Gragson, whose once-championship level SHR program has fallen on hard times. Failing to win in 2023 and posting a total of 13 top-five finishes among its four drivers, it’s spent the bulk of 2024 mired in mediocrity.

With the notable exception of Gragson, of course. Just look at the stat line for what he’s accomplished compared to a trio of SHR teammates this season.

Stewart-Haas Racing in 2024

SHR DriverStartsWinsTop 5Top 10Laps Led
Josh Berry 1200031
Chase Briscoe1200412
Noah Gragson1201510
Ryan Preece120010

As noted above, Gragson has as many top 10s as the rest of his SHR teammates combined. His five top 10s also match what the former driver of the No. 10 car, Aric Almirola, had over a full 36-race season last year. He’s also running circles around Berry, a rookie, who took over the best car within the organization that Kevin Harvick took to the playoffs just last year.

“Still want a little bit more,” Gragson said after Kansas, “but these have been good days compared to what our goals were at the start of the year.”

They’re also happening in the midst of constant rumors about the future and stability of SHR. Just last week, Ryan Preece, whose future with the team appears murky at best beyond this season, spoke out publicly on social media when it was revealed he’s not included in a study group with his other teammates within the organization.

(It should be noted Gragson, with those five top-10 finishes, has two more than Preece has racked up in 48 career starts with the No. 41 team.)

The SHR organization as a whole was rumored to be selling at least one charter for most of last fall, a deal that ultimately never materialized. But buzz is growing the team will be downsizing significantly. A report from FOX Sports’ Bob Pockrass this week said the team has been courting prospective buyers of at least one charter. The rumors range in the neighborhood of one to three, a team in transition with their manufacturer deal with Ford also remaining unsigned for 2025.

Depending on what happens, the mess could make Gragson’s year a 36-race audition for somebody else. But after putting both his on- and off-track reputation at risk after an ugly tenure at Legacy Motor Club, this talented 20-something is well on his way toward redemption.

Who would you rather have for your Cup team next year: a driver outrunning his equipment, sitting top 20 in Cup points with 13 career NASCAR Xfinity Series wins like Gragson? Or a driver like Sammy Smith, sitting there with no experience and just one career NXS victory?

At least one of those teams purchasing a charter from SHR will need to fill the seat with a driver. Well, Gragson appears to have the most upside of the SHR quartet (yes, even above Berry and Briscoe). Just 25 years old, he’s still got some 15 years of Cup racing ahead of him with the right opportunity. If it all falls apart at SHR, I’d rank him as the best current prospect on the market outside of maybe Chandler Smith or Corey Heim.

Gragson’s making it an easy choice, and you have to give him credit. A driver who could have easily packed it in or kept himself heading down the wrong path has put the work in to turn his life and career around.

See also
F1: How Netflix's ‘Drive To Survive’ Fueled The Sports Popularity

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …

  • NASCAR may have had the closest finish in Cup history, but that didn’t stop the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Miami from beating it in overall TV viewership by some 800,000 people (3.1 million to 2.3 million). It’s a tough reminder for NASCAR that despite its successful Netflix documentary series, it still seeks a permanent solution to F1’s Drive To Survive and a way to counter the hipper, younger vibe you saw over the weekend down in Florida. Having a first-time winner in Lando Norris, who broke Max Verstappen’s grip on the series (at least for a week) doesn’t help. Having less-than-full stands at Kansas despite one of the best races of the year also doesn’t help. Is it marketing? Inability to reach younger viewers? These are the questions not getting answered by the powers that be with everyone’s focus on charter negotiations.
  • Christopher Bell has one of the weirdest boom-or-bust stat lines in recent NASCAR history. After a sixth-place finish at Kansas, he’s now got a win and six top-10 finishes in the first 12 races. His other six starts? Bell’s crashed in every one of those events, winding up 17th once and producing five other finishes of 33rd or worse.
  • Late spin at Kansas aside, it feels like Kyle Busch and Richard Childress Racing have found something. Busch has now got a pole, three top-10 finishes and 52 laps led in his last four starts, his best stretch in the No. 8 Chevrolet since last summer.

Follow @NASCARBowles

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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Mike

Its hard to market a bad product. The networks have ruined nascar with all the poor coverage and endless commercials, its getting very hard to watch a race much less the half ass coverage of practice, qualifying, mostly commercials and off track stupid commentary. New fans lose interest fast. Cant say as i blame them

Jeremy

Don’t forget; they’ve already ran off most of the old fans, too. So who does that leave to watch?

wildcatsfan2016

Come on, Tom, you’ve followed and written about the sport for a lot of years. NASCAR has created most of its own problems in the past decade. First we had that loser Brian France making one stupid decision after another and everyone else in the France family, plus the media, insisting to the fans that it was “wonderful”! No it wasn’t. He tried to kill off tracks like Darlington, introduced us (heaven help us) to the Brick of tomorrow and the crapshoot championship. NASCAR silenced the drivers by insisting they toe the company line so that the fans pretty much felt as though they couldn’t trust anything anyone said. Who do I believe? My own eyes when I think it’s a terrible race or the driver being interviewed.

As Jeremy points out, they ran off most of the older fans and the younger fans simply may not be as imbedded with the car culture as the previous generation.

As Mike points out, it’s hard to market a bad product. The racing is just not that compelling. The broadcast production is poor. Personally I like Mike Joy, Kevin Harvick & Larry Mac. Clint Bowyer and that idiot Waltrip are extraneous and annoying. The producer is doing I have no idea what when showing the race on the track. I’ve complained for years about the one car shots. Or when they focus on the leader running all alone for lap after lap. That’s not compelling. They would be better off with a camera on a drone that looked over the entire track in at least one of the screen and show the fans at home the entire race.

NASCAR is reaping what it sowed. I used to plan my weekend around the racing schedule. I no longer do that because I can watch the last 10 laps and see what is going to be the most important part of the race.

Last edited 9 days ago by wildcatsfan2016
Kevin in SoCal

I guess SHR should have stuck with Cole Custer instead of jumping to Ryan Preece. Maybe Custer deserves another chance after winning the XFINITY championship.

Bill B

NASCAR seems more interested in propagating their own BS than making the racing the best they can. They are unwilling to admit there is a problem and unwilling to do whatever they have to to fix it. They seem willing to knowingly let a third of their races suck(tracks 1 mile or less). There is no urgency to do whatever they have to or they’d try raising the horsepower as many drivers have asked. It’s more important for them to be right.

Mike

Unfortunately nascar doesnt want to raise the horsepower bc other auto mfg that nascar is sucking up to such as honda, doesnt even have a v8 or any known legal pushrod engine that will make 700 hp much less 800. So i guess nascar will go to 500 hp v6. So they can suck up to get new auto mfg. imo if you cant make a i. C. E. Engine to make 800 hp then you dont need to race in nascar. But nascar will change all the rules for them.

Bill B

And when is Honda making that announcement?😉

Mike

Its been reported by the goons in the booth during race broadcast that nascar does not want to increase hp because they want honda as a new mfg to the sport. Not sure what that would have to do with it but im assuming it would add cost to engine development for honda and any other possible new auto mfg bc of existing rules that does not allow overhead cam engines. As far as i know most auto manufacturers around the world only have overhead cam engines as well as turbos that also are not currently allowed

Shayne

Brian Z. France might buy SHR if the France family approves it.

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