In today’s NASCAR landscape, few can claim to be the sort of lightning rod that Noah Gragson has become, and even fewer can be as many things as he’s been in the past month: A playboy posing bare-chested by his car. A reckless fool, intentionally hooking a right into a driver that angered him, wrecking a dozen cars in the process and earning a major points penalty and monetary fine. An outstanding young racer, making his car wide and outdueling Ty Gibbs on the final lap to win a thrilling race at Pocono.
It is this broad spectrum of personas that has made Gragson one of NASCAR’s most compelling young up-and-comers. A 24-year old from Las Vegas with a personality that fits like a glove into the “bad boy race car driver” archetype, Gragson presents something of a modern re-imagining of drivers of old — the sort whose prerogative was driving cars fast, drinking beer and getting into fights.
It’s no wonder that Gragson has become one of the top drivers in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, where he has three wins this season and is firmly in the hunt for the series championship. Alongside that, this year has given him his very first taste of Cup Series racing. He’s run eight races so far, splitting time between Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 and Beard Motorsports’ No. 62 as he gains seat time and experience at the highest level of his profession.
“It’s a privilege to be able to race in the Cup Series and race in general,” Gragson told CBS Sports. “… running the Cup Series, we put a lot of hard work in. There’s still a long ways to go, but this is what we work for and this is where the goal has been. But never would I have dreamed that I’d be able to race in the Cup Series, much less the Truck Series or the K&N Series back in the day, you know?”
Results for Gragson in Cup have not yet been there, as crashes and mechanical failures have cut half his races so far short and his best finish is a mere 18th at Kansas. But as Gragson’s star continues to shine in Xfinity, it feels as though all of NASCAR is anxiously awaiting Gragson’s move to a full-time Cup ride. The recruitment process has already begun, as Petty GMS Racing is reportedly one team targeting Gragson to drive for them next year.
When asked about what conversations he’s had about driving a Cup car, Gragson made it clear that he has not signed anything for 2023 — something that is normal for him, as he’s operated on year-to-year deals to this point in his career. Gragson said that the goal for him and car owners Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt MIller has been for Gragson to eventually race a Cup car for JR Motorsports, but that goal has yet to be realized as JR Motorsports has yet to put a program together to move up from Xfinity to Cup — even as they look toward doing so.
It’s clear why that scenario would be an ideal one for Gragson: Since first joining JR Motorsports in 2019, he has found a place where he is offered the structure and support system necessary for a young man still trying to come of age and figure out the world. And yet, JR Motorsports has allowed Gragson the space he needs to be himself and let both his flamboyant personality and driving talent flourish.
Attesting to this, Gragson pointed directly to his relationship with Ryan Pemberton, the team’s director of competition, as well as others from both JR Motorsports and Kaulig Racing on the Cup side.
“[Pemberton has] really made it encouraging and comfortable for a driver like myself who, yeah, probably does have a unique personality,” Gragson said. “They’ve allowed me to be myself, and they have expectations when we get to the racetrack, and that’s to win races and do the best job possible and be prepared when we show up.”
There’s no doubt that Gragson is in a place and in a situation where he is happy. That situation includes racing in the Xfinity Series, spending his weekends in its garage area, and contending for wins and championships there. It’s a situation many other young drivers enjoy as well, until a they get a first opportunity to drive a Cup car full-time.
This is where Gragson deviates from some of his contemporaries. Rather than look toward a future in a Cup car with starry eyes, Gragson speaks like someone who does not feel like his time in Xfinity is running short, nor someone who feels that there are only things he can accomplish in Xfinity now. If anything, there is a part of him that is pushing back against the hand that is trying to push him out of the nest and towards the next expected step towards the big time.
“I’ve been getting a lot of questions. Everyone’s alluding, ‘Cup, Cup Cup’ – Why?”, Gragson asked. “Our goal is to race and win races. I think that should be the main focus here is this year and the rest of the season with this championship.
“… I enjoy racing in this series and enjoy the people, enjoy JR Motorsports. Hopefully getting to race with JR Motorsports and have an opportunity in the future to chase an Xfinity championship would be a great opportunity for me. I don’t want to say it’s the last year that I’ll have at JR Motorsports.