Gragson to get second chance in NASCAR after personal growth journey following suspension
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Noah Gragson has spent the last five months working on personal growth and maturity after his “like” of an insensitive meme of George Floyd nearly cost him his NASCAR career.
He'll get a chance to show if he's truly evolved with Stewart-Haas Racing, which said Wednesday it has hired Gragson to drive the No. 10 Ford in the Cup Series. It's a second chance Gragson is not taking lightly after his career imploded in August.
Social media users noted that a meme circulating of Floyd, a Black man who was killed in 2020 by white police officers, had been “liked” by Gragson. NASCAR suspended the 25-year-old and he parted ways with Legacy Motor Club, which had hired the Las Vegas native for his first full season racing in the top Cup level.
Gragson, who had built a reputation as an aggressive driver both on and off the track in the second-tier Xfinity Series, reached out to good friend Brandon McReynolds and wondered why everything was falling apart in his life.
“I was like ‘Man, what’s going on? Like, is this real? Why is this happening?'" Gragson recalled in an interview with The Associated Press. “He said ‘Hey buddy, I’m going to tell you this because you're like a little brother to me, but it's time you grow up and it's time you take accountability and you allow yourself to take this opportunity to work on yourself and self reflect.'”
And that's what Gragson did during his suspension, in which he had to work through a sensitivity training course with NASCAR but also sought professional help with a psychologist. Gragson said the work he's put in over the last five months has been life-changing.
“It has brought a tremendous amount of self-awareness to myself, self-reflection, and ultimately it opened my eyes to the world and showed me I was a pretty selfish guy,” Gragson said. “I've learned to pay more attention, be more present, enjoy the people I'm with. This has really been a rude awakening of all the work I needed to do on myself.”
Gragson, who won 13 races in the Xfinity Series driving for JR Motorsports and was the 2022 championship runner-up, ran 21 races in Cup with Legacy before his suspension. Legacy, now co-owned by Jimmie Johnson, was dramatically uncompetitive and Gragson didn't score a single top-10 finish and was 33rd in the standings when he lost his job.
He doesn't know why he hit the like button on the Floyd meme in early August, but his journey of self-reflection has given Gragson some theories.
“I think my ignorance and lack of awareness put me in that position to like that meme,” Gragson said. “I think through everything I've learned, I'm able to have situational awareness. I think at that time, it was laziness on social media. I don't know why it came up on my page, but I take accountability for the lack of awareness and realize I put myself in that position and want to become better from it.”
He wasn't sure he'd get another chance but landed a seat at SHR, which was winless last season in the Cup Series and had to replace both Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola for 2024. Gragson is getting Almirola's seat.
SHR co-owner Tony Stewart, no stranger to controversy on and off the track himself, was willing to give Gragson an opening to return to racing.
“Noah deserves to be in the NASCAR Cup Series," Stewart said. "Noah has performed at every level where he’s competed and has regularly been in championship contention. That’s the kind of driver we need at Stewart-Haas and that’s why Noah is a part of our team.”
Gragson is the great-grandson of Oran Gragson, the Mayor of Las Vegas from 1959 to 1974, and his father, Scott, in 2020 pleaded guilty to DUI causing death for a 2019 crash that killed a mother of three. Scott Gragson was sentenced to eight to 20 years in prison.
Gragson declined to discuss any effects his father's situation had on his own behavior, which seemingly became erratic after the fatal crash. The youngster was in physical confrontations at the track, and, after wins, would often accept alcoholic beverages from fans in the stands to celebrate.
He did, however, acknowledge that seeing a psychologist then would have benefited him.
“It just takes becoming honest with myself. I don't want to get into too much detail, but with that situation, it's definitely something that I've become more honest with myself and accepting of the situation,” Gragson said. "It's how you adapt and how you overcome the adversity and challenges. I feel like I'm still trying to learn life and learn how to do the right things and it's been tough, to say the least.
“But right now I feel confident with myself in all avenues, including that one (with his father).”
AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing