With his mix of talent and personality, Noah Gragson is poised to be the next NASCAR Cup Series superstar in 2023.
The sport of NASCAR has been blessed with several electric personalities. Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Michael and Darrell Waltrip. Rusty Wallace. Tony Stewart. Jeff Gordon. All of these men provided the sport with entertainment through their driving styles on the track and their quotes off of it. They are each a major reason why NASCAR surged in popularity throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
Unfortunately for the sport, personalities like these have largely disappeared since the 2010s. The lack of exciting drivers led to the sport’s general decline as well.
Building a Star
Driving the car is the most important aspect of being a NASCAR driver. Displaying emotion in interviews and interacting or endearing yourself with fans is equally as important, however. If all the drivers are faceless, colorless beings, then it is harder for fans to rally behind a driver.
Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, and Chase Elliott, three of the most popular and most talented NASCAR drivers today, are more so popular because of their dads or because of their talent rather than their relatively flat personalities.
Veteran drivers such as Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, or Joey Logano display more emotion. However, they are too old or controversial to really gain vast support and help the sport grow.
There are a few drivers that are exceptions to this and show some emotion. This includes Bubba Wallace, Corey LaJoie, and Ross Chastain. However, each of these drivers either lacks consistent success or are also mired in controversy (see: Chastain vs. Hamlin, or Wallace vs. Larson).
NASCAR has seen growth in recent years. Yet, the sport will not be able to reach its fullest potential without entertaining, talented drivers that can further promote the sport and garner fan support. Enter, Noah Gragson.
Gragson is not completely unknown to most NASCAR fans. The 24-year-old Las Vegas native raced full-time in the NASCAR Truck Series from 2016-2017 for Kyle Busch Motorsports. He is currently in the midst of his fourth full season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports. He also has raced a handful of times in the Cup Series in 2022, most recently filling in for Alex Bowman.
Considered to be the closest thing to a modern-day Tim Richmond, Gragson has become known for his aggressive style of racing and outspoken personality over the last few seasons. Gragson’s appearance alone has more personality than most of the current Cup Series garage combined. From his willingness to show off his chest in his firesuit to his legendary mullet, it is hard not to notice Gragson on pit road.
The driver of the #9 is also the best quote in any of the major NASCAR series’ today. He is not afraid to call out fellow drivers like Daniel Hemric. He also routinely swears or says something unusual in post-race interviews. A quote from a recent race in Las Vegas sums up most of what can be expected from a Noah Gragson interview. After narrowly losing to teammate Josh Berry, Gragson said,
“Just got caught there. So, definitely unfortunate. I’d throw my nuts off trying to get back up to the front and I just ran out of time there. But God, I was hanging them out, threw them on the dash, and was giving everything I had. Just not enough time there.”
Hurdles Still to Clear
While most drivers would give a boring response, Gragson quite literally hangs it all out there and gives a response that people can both relate to and enjoy.
Gragson’s outlandish personality is not without some concerns, the first of these being his lack of maturity at times. He has gotten into several physical altercations with fellow drivers, including Hemric and Harrison Burton. NASCAR fined him and stripped away points for intentionally wrecking Sage Karam at Road America earlier this year. The incident led to a dangerous, multi-car wreck and was widely criticized by everyone in the NASCAR garage.
The second, and most important, concern plaguing Gragson is the most important thing to any NASCAR driver: results. Although he has always enjoyed top-tier equipment, he had been largely inconsistent throughout his Truck Series and Xfinity Series careers prior to 2022. While driving for KBM in the Truck Series, he finished second in points in 2018 but recorded just two wins across two seasons.
Following a winless debut season for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series in 2019, there were legitimate concerns over whether Gragson could ever live up to his potential. He addressed some of these concerns in 2020 by recording two wins and a fifth-place finish in the points. He then took another step in 2021, winning three times and finishing third in his first Championship 4 appearance.
While there were promising signs, Gragson still lacked elite performance and many still doubted if Gragson could ever move into the Cup Series. Then, 2022 happened.
A Breakout Year
Failing to win the championship in two weeks would be a disappointment. However, even without the title, this season has been as good as it could be for Gragson. He has career-highs in wins (8), top fives (19), poles (2), laps led (952), and average finish (8.4). Gragson won an unfathomable four straight races in September. His win at Homestead last weekend locked him into the Championship 4 at Phoenix.
As impressive as the victories are, it is what Gragson does after he wins that is just as important. He gets out of his car, pukes, climbs the fence, and chugs a beer with the fans. The interaction and celebration with fans along with the novelty of him puking all over himself is a level of entertainment that NASCAR has missed for decades. With all of the fun he has, Gragson represents what it would be like if a fan got to live out their dream of driving in NASCAR. This further relates him to the fanbase.
The career year led to Gragson finally getting a full-time Cup Series opportunity for Petty GMS Motorsports in 2023. Petty GMS has made tremendous progress throughout 2022, culminating in Erik Jones’ win at Darlington a few weeks ago. They do not have the best equipment in the Cup Series but are a solid team that will give Gragson the ability to at least compete for a playoff spot.
Noah Gragson has it all to be the next great NASCAR superstar. He is a fun, volatile, and outspoken driver that understands the importance of fans and can help the sport grow. He has also finally found success and has the ability to win several championships in the Cup Series.
In a sport without many colorful personalities that have the talent to back it up, Noah Gragson represents something that has long been missing in NASCAR and just may be the key to advancing the sport into the future. And, even if he is not able to, you can guarantee that he is going to hang it all out there.