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With each swing of his fist at Daniel Hemric on pit road at Atlanta last month, Noah Gragson sent NASCAR fans further into two camps, and those camps aren’t Team Gragson or Team Hemric. (That’s just the latest Xfinity Series rivalry.)
After multiple incidents involving the 22-year-old driver, fans have rallied into Team Gragson or Team Whoever Wants to Fight Gragson.
“Polarizing is a great word,” said longtime NASCAR fan Jenny Lloyd when asked how she perceived the driver.
Gragson has not shied away from the controversy either. “I love every second of it,” he said last month in the wake of backlash for a comment he made about driver David Starr following their late-lap run-in at Homestead.
“There are people who like me. There are people who hate me. You’re gonna have that. Does it bother me? Not a bit,” Gragson said at the time.
A more humbled Gragson appeared in front of reporters Wednesday — one who said he was planning to call Hemric this week to discuss the latest dust-up after spending Easter weekend resetting, relaxing and golfing with his family in Las Vegas.
“There’s no hard feeling toward Daniel or anybody else in the Xfinity garage,” Gragson said. “But at the same time, I need to keep a job and I need to race as hard as I can.”
Gragson’s typically ready-to-brawl, unfiltered attitude has garnered loyalty amongst his followers as much as it has fueled critics who view him as too brash for the same reason. After Hemric initiated the fight for a mid-race incident on pit road at Atlanta — which NASCAR deemed did not warrant a penalty — Gragson resumed his post-race interview on FS1, explaining his view of the situation, and inserting a dig at Hemric.
“I’d be mad if I was in his shoes, too,” Gragson said on the broadcast. “Just based off what he’s done in his career.”
“Time for a Noah Gragson shirt,” commented one fan on a clip of the interview on Twitter.
“Don’t give him a microphone,” wrote Cup driver Denny Hamlin.
NASCAR’S NEXT VILLAIN?
Lloyd, a racing fan who said she follows the dramas across all of NASCAR’s top series and is a season ticket holder at Phoenix Raceway, declared Gragson — controversy and all — good for NASCAR.
“Sometimes that rivalry is exactly what the sport needs,” she said outside of Bristol Motor Speedway, where Cup and Truck teams raced on dirt in late March. “I think you have to have drivers that people have a strong opinion about because if it’s all neutral, what’s the fun in that?
“There are only so many times that you can complain about Kyle Busch, or even some of these other drivers that have softened up over the years,” she said.
Kelley Earnhardt Miller, co-owner of the JR Motorsports organization Gragson has raced for since 2019, said she’s also considered that aspect of Gragson’s rising publicity, noting how legendary drivers of an earlier generation such as her father, the late Dale Earnhardt, were viewed as polarizing figures and often lauded for their attitudes.
“It’s like the same ones maybe complaining that they don’t want to see as much of Noah, or they want him to back it down, are the ones that say Jimmie Johnson was too vanilla,” Miller told The Observer. “What is it?”
She said the most frustrating comments she encounters regarding Gragson are the ones suggesting that she let the driver go following a controversy.
“But that’s kind of the culture these days,” Miller said. “It’s like if we don’t like it, we’re just gonna get rid of it. And I think, what if we just got rid of Dale Earnhardt? Or what if we just got rid of Rusty Wallace? Dick Trickle? Geoff Bodine?
“I would rather teach and mold and help him to be his best than to go at it from a different angle.”
Kyle Busch, often deemed NASCAR’s “villain” before Gragson, said he understands the position of his former driver. Gragson raced for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series between 2016 and 2018, at the same time Busch was providing many memorable quotes racing in the Cup Series to fuel both his haters and Rowdy Nation.
“There are hundreds of YouTube videos out there of Kyle Busch after a race in which he dominated and didn’t win where he’s pissed off afterwards, so I’m guilty of it too,” Busch said. “But, you know, it’s a racing incident. It’s stuff that happens. I’ve grown to understand a little bit more of that as I’ve gotten older, so I’m sure he will, too.”
Busch, a two-time Cup champion, also cautioned against letting certain behavior go too far and distracting from on-track performance. He said his advice to Gragson would be to put more focus on himself and winning races, and less on everybody else. Gragson earned two wins last season and has two top-five finishes in the first six races this year, but his No. 9 Chevrolet team has also DNF’d as many races as it’s completed this season due to crashes or mechanical issues, despite the team’s early speed.
Gragson said he’s ready to reverse the tough-break narrative this weekend at Martinsville, a short track where he finished third last season and led 23 laps, and that he’s able to “flip the switch” to prevent outside commentary from being a distraction inside the car.
“The only thing that I take from off the track and use inside the racecar is my preparation throughout the week,” Gragson said. “And nothing else matters. It’s kind of like a pause on time for me.”
A SLIPPERY SLOPE
But Gragson’s laser-focus on winning, combined with his self-described “aggressive” driving style and post-race quips have alienated some in a tight-knit industry where maintaining relationships is crucial to success and advancing through the series ranks.
The Hemric incident was the latest in a string of conflicts involving Gragson in the last two years. He and Joe Gibbs Racing driver Harrison Burton exchanged blows last season after an Xfinity race at Kentucky. Earlier this year, Fox Sports announcer Mike Joy subtweeted Gragson and other “funded” drivers following Gragson’s post-race comments about Starr — after Starr’s blown tire foiled Gragson’s chance to win the race at Homestead.
“What are you gonna do? You’ve got dip---- in the way every single week,” a frustrated Gragson said on FS1 after the race, referring to Starr and souring MBM Motorsports team owner Carl Long, who fielded Starr’s car.
“I would’ve been just as mad as he was. Stuff happens, whatever. I don’t fault him for that,” Long told The Observer. “But it’s just the arrogance he carries when he decides that we don’t deserve to be there.”
Gragson’s comment provided fodder for those who already view him as an “over-entitled mouthpiece,” as Long labeled him on Facebook, or one of these “privileged kids, powered by daddy’s pile of cash,” as Joy wrote on Twitter. Gragson is the son of Las Vegas casino mogul Scott Gragson, a fact that has further contributed to commentary among race fans on social media.
Although Gragson still sees his family in Nevada, his home base is in North Carolina to pursue racing, and Miller said she’s taken on a nurturing role in Gragson’s life, treating him like one of her own children.
“Noah’s a kid,” Miller said. “He’s young and doesn’t have those life experiences like (34-year-old JRM teammate) Justin Allgaier has to go off of to make decisions, so that’s part of the process here is to have those experiences and give feedback and so on, so that guys like Noah can grow in their career and as people.”
But her protectiveness over Gragson doesn’t mean she lets certain behavior go unchecked, she said. Both she and JRM co-owner and brother Dale Earnhart Jr. have had conversations with Gragson about his racing style and behavior. Earnhardt Jr. described a situation on his podcast, the Dale Jr. Download, when he spoke to Gragson about tempering his aggression on the track last year, which ultimately resulted in Gragson dismissing the suggestion, saying it slowed him down, and signing up for jiu-jitsu lessons.
“That would’ve not been what I would have decided to do,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “But that’s who he is, and I’m not his handler. I can advise him, and tell him things that I would’ve done differently, and I did.”
Miller said that the lesson she tries to impress upon Gragson is “how far you take something.”
“He’s young and he’s brash,” Miller said. “I like those things about him, but I think sometimes there’s a time and place for everything and there’s a time when enough is enough.”
Miller explained that she had no issue with what occurred at Atlanta based on the fact that Hemric initiated the scuffle and Gragson said that he had to back into Hemric’s box to avoid a penalty, but she took exception to the fallout from the Starr incident. But what about the middle finger Gragson supposedly showed Hemric?
“Drivers throw up the middle finger all the time,” Miller said. “They cuss. They say things to each other … To me, that’s just part of the emotion that really makes the sport what it is. It draws out the competitor in the racers.”
Busch did not condemn Gragson for the pit road maneuver into Hemric’s box either, but said that the “driver code” implies that the expectation is to race others how you expect to be raced, and when that changes, the dynamic between those drivers will likely change. He called the controversial persona a “slippery slope.”
“You certainly want to be careful,” Busch said. “There are ways you can climb your way to the top of that mountain, but if you slip too big, you’re going to avalanche down.”
Miller is familiar with handling the “love-him-or-hate-him” controversy as the daughter of Earnhardt Sr. She reminded that the situations were different for “a 27-year-old Dale Earnhardt coming into the sport and a 17-year-old Noah Gragson coming in” in response to critics who argue Gragson is a less proven driver. She said she views her role as an Xfinity team owner as teaching and molding developing talent.
“We don’t only know the TV Noah that the race fans are seeing,” Miller said. “So we just know him better and know that it’s emotions and they run high and there’s a lot going on in his world in his life and he’s trying to prove himself...
“I wasn’t always gonna get everybody to like Dale Earnhardt or think of him the way I thought of him because they saw one side of him and I got to see a lot of different sides of him,” Miller continued. “I try to keep those things in mind, but I know not everybody looks at life that way.”
Those different sides of Gragson include “a fun, easy going-type guy that likes to have a good time, but also does focus on his work,” according to Busch. In 2018, Gragson worked as a tire changer for late model teams while racing in the Truck Series to learn a new trade.
“I just wanted to go to the racetrack on my off weekends,” Gragson told The Observer.
There is also a side of Gragson who acknowledges his fortunate situation with a better-funded Xfinity team and consistently thanks those who have helped him get there, including his sponsors, fans, family and those in the racing community who have supported him. The show of gratitude often comes through in interviews and social media highlighting his fans and partners.
JRM’s vice president of licensing and marketing Joe Mattes said that Gragson is favored by his sponsors because they like the “fire in the belly” and competitive worth ethic, according to a recent AP article, noting, “Anything he does at the track earns him television time, and he flawlessly directs viewers to the nearest Bass Pro Shops every single time.”
“I think there are a lot of guys that you don’t see their true self until you meet them and I feel like I’m maybe one of those guys,” Gragson said. “People might misunderstand me.”
Gragson said his plan before Friday’s race at the typically contact-heavy Martinsville track was to “man up” and give Hemric a call to explain his side of what transpired at the last Xfinity event. The two drivers could potentially find some middle ground — or not — as Hemric and others look to Gragson’s latest incidents and actions to determine which team they’re siding with.
“The beauty is that we all get to form our own opinions about what we see and we can choose to like it or not like it,” Miller said.