Commentary: Noah Gragson, “Just Hard Racing.” Two-thirds of the way through the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series season it’s hard to find a more polarizing figure than the driver of the JR Motorsports No. 9, Noah Gragson.
Gragson has success this season but also has become the source of controversy. According to an NBCSN graphic displayed during the July 18th Xfinity Series race at Texas, Gragson has been involved in an on-track incident in 12 of the 16 races so far this season.
In nearly every post-race interview, Gragson attributes the incidents to “just hard racing.”
While he occasionally takes the blame for specific incidents, Gragson seems reluctant to accept that he is the common denominator. His “just hard racing” statement is now a frequent catchphrase and gives the impression of downplaying his responsibility for any encounter on-track.
Other Hard-Charging Drivers
Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski have reputations for a ‘take no prisoners’ driving style as well. But, there are key differences between these two and Noah Gragson. Both Logano and Keselowski are blunt and out front by repeatedly saying, they’re “not on the track to make friends.” They expect other drivers to race them in the same aggressive way they race. Another big difference is that Logano and Keselowski can see the bigger picture. They understand the need to minimize equipment damage by weighing the overall risk versus the reward for their team.
A Developing Trend
As the old saying goes, “when everyone around you is wrong, maybe it’s just you.”
Along with several other previous incidents, Gragson has high profile altercations with Myatt Snyder at Las Vegas, teammate Justin Allgaier at Bristol, Harrison Burton at Kentucky, and most recently, Riley Herbst at Texas. The incident at Kentucky even led to a fistfight after the race between Gragson and the usually mild-mannered Burton.
Except for the Snyder incident, most of Gragson’s on-track altercations may indeed be attributed to “just hard racing,” as Gragson frequently claims in interviews. Gragson’s actions are rarely, if ever, malicious. With that in mind, the pattern has become almost undeniable. The common link between all of these incidents is Noah Gragson.
Gragson has the talent and passion for success in the Xfinity Series. He’s had a breakthrough this season, with two wins, eight top-fives, and 11 top-tens. But, some of that success has come at the expense of his peers. So, despite his achievement, his reputation as an overly aggressive driver is not making him popular in the garage.
Winning Isn’t Everything
The NASCAR Xfinity Series promotes the ladder racing series for up-and-coming drivers with the trade-mark slogan, ‘Names are Made Here.’ Almost all of today’s Cup Series stars cut their teeth in this stairway series.
On-track success is important, but when a driver is auditioning for a Cup Series ride, they need to present themselves as a complete asset to a team. Any candidate hoping to advance needs to display on-track performance while keeping in mind, their on-track persona becomes the face of the organization and sponsors. Especially in tough economic times, drivers who repeatedly tear up their equipment, represent a financial liability to any team.
The Face of JR Motorsports
Team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr’s patience may be wearing thin with Noah Gragson. Comments made during his Dale Jr Download podcast, as well as on Twitter and during the NBC Sports Network broadcast of the Texas race, indicate that Gragson may not be in his boss’s best graces right now.
Other Aggressive Young Drivers
A successful but undisciplined driver release from JRM is not unprecedented. They parted ways with Tyler Reddick after the 2018 season, despite Reddick winning the series championship. The public reason for Reddick’s departure was to better align for a future Cup Series ride. There are a few speculators, however, that say his future was in doubt at JRM due to tearing up race cars.
During his year at Richard Childress Racing in the Xfinity Series, Reddick developed into a much more mature and disciplined driver capturing his second consecutive series championship. Tyler Reddick is now having an outstanding rookie season in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Another example of an aggressive young driver losing a ride is Joey Logano. Logano found success at Joe Gibbs Racing but also found more than his fair share of controversy after run-ins with the likes of Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. Logano left JGR after the 2012 season and has since matured into a Cup Series champion with Team Penske.
Commentary: Noah Gragson “Just Hard Racing”
Hopefully, Gragson faces a wakeup call soon. He has strong mentors around him with veteran teammates like Justin Allgaier, a NASCAR Hall of Fame car owner, and the entire Hendrick Motorsports development system. If Gragson can develop some maturity and track discipline, there is no doubt he has the talent to enjoy a long and successful career in NASCAR. But first, he needs to understand that “just hard racing” isn’t always the answer to advancing on the track or his career.