Compared to this time a year ago, one could argue that Noah Gragson is the most improved driver in all of NASCAR. And it didn’t happen by accident.
Gragson entered the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series season coming off a subpar rookie season in 2019, where he finished eighth in the championship standings. His seven top-five and 22 top-10 finishes with an average finish of 9.3 last year ranked better than Tyler Reddick, who had a standout 2018 postseason en route to the title for JR Motorsports.
But for years, Gragson has been mocked over not getting the job done in top equipment. In two-full time seasons in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports (2017 and 2018), the Las Vegas native scored just two triumphs. He was snake-bit by bad luck, dominating some races only to crash later or have a bad pit stop.
Through 10 races this season, Gragson has put the naysayers to rest, earning two victories and eight top-10 finishes, and pacing the field for 317 laps. The same driver led just 72 circuits in his rookie season.
It’s been a solid start to 2020 to say the least.
“I would say it’s gone pretty good,” Gragson recently told Frontstretch of his season. “I would say it’s going good, just need to stay focused, stay motivated and keep on track like this.”
The No. 9 team kicked off the season by winning the biggest race of the season at Daytona International Speedway before having a run-in with Myatt Snider at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Gragson had a disappointing run at Auto Club Speedway, but he got back on track at Phoenix Raceway with a stage victory. And since the series returned from its 75-day hiatus, he’s been lights out, always running towards the front.
At Darlington Raceway, Gragson rounded out the top five. The No. 9 team ran inside the top three all night at Charlotte Motor Speedway before getting involved in a late incident, still finishing 11th. Now, he’s on a streak of four consecutive top-fives that started at Bristol Motor Speedway, when he moved teammate Justin Allgaier out of the way for his second career victory. At Atlanta Motor Speedway, he finished second before going to Homestead-Miami Speedway last weekend, waxing the field and rim-riding the wall. Ultimately, that subtle bad luck popped up again, as he was on his way to a pair of victories with a caution coming out with under seven laps to go in the scheduled distance of each race. He finished third and fifth, respectively.
In the past, the anger of losing two races in as many days could have hindered Gragson. But compared to previous years, he’s matured a great deal, both on and off the racetrack.
See, Gragson works closely with a trio of people to better himself, first as a person and of course a racecar driver.
Dating back to 2015, he’s had a tight-knit relationship with fellow driver Brandon McReynolds, competing then in the K&N West Series. Competing for Mike Curb, McReynolds saw potential in Gragson. He did, however, believe Gragson needed to clean his act up on the racetrack.
“I felt the need to reach out to Noah and have a discussion and put some of that on-track activity that we had together behind us,” McReynolds said. “We started having some conversations about big picture racing and us racing each other cleaner. From that point on, we never really had any issues.”
The following season, McReynolds was hired by the Gragson family to be a spotter and driver coach for the up-and-coming driver, who spent a second season in the West Series for Jefferson Pitts Racing.
McReynolds noted when Gragson came East to chase the NASCAR dream, he first moved in with him in the Charlotte hub. Because of that, the duo are “like brothers,” though McReynolds is just over seven years older.
In January 2020, McReynolds began working in driver development and business development at Truex Management Group, owned by 2017 Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. TMG is a company specializing in fully-integrated management services for racecar drivers and athletes, which represents Gragson.
Because of that, McReynolds is still able to work with his friend on a professional level.
“I think the biggest thing working with Noah over the last five-and-a-half years is really understanding that it takes everything and that you have an option,” McReynolds said. “You can either go be a normal kid and hang out, get a 9-5 job and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if not, it takes everything that you have and it takes the ultimate commitment to being a professional and going out there and getting the job done.”
Gragson also works closely with former driver Josh Wise, who has elevated Gragson’s performance away from the track. Since retiring from competition following the 2016 season, Wise has gathered roughly 10 drivers together and took them under his wing. The goal: help drivers become better tracking their health, fitness and nutrition. Ultimately, he’s optimizing humans.
When Gragson made the transition in the 2018-2019 offseason to JRM, he was introduced to Wise, and the two began putting a plan together to help the driver’s ability.
That relationship, too, has grown.
“I spend all week with Noah, just helping him be prepared and grow and be the best he can be and reach his potential,” Wise said. “We do a lot of physical training, but really, my biggest focus with all the guys I work with is trying to help them with their thinking. I think their mindset and their mental process is the most important aspect, and physical fitness is the biggest requirement and there are tools within that, that we use for mindsets.
“Everybody needs to be fit to race cars, and the thing that makes the difference is really [your] mindset.”
Wise says he works with Gragson as a driver by watching film. Off the track, he notes, “I think it’s important to see where an athlete is at as far as their motivation levels and what they feel like they need to be focusing on and keep that open dialogue going.”
There was, though, a time where Wise needed to sell Gragson on his program, assuring him, it would help.
“Initially, I think, there was a buy-in phase,” he said. “I had to really prove to Noah that I had his best interests in mind and gain his trust and [keep] communication open. Since about mid-season last year, Noah has really grown in every area.”
Then there’s Gragson’s crew chief, Dave Elenz. Since 2015, Elenz has made 152 starts as an Xfinity crew chief for JRM. In that time, he’s won 12 races, his first with Kevin Harvick at Atlanta in 2015. He’s gone on to win consecutive championships in 2017 and 2018 with William Byron and Reddick.
Like Wise, there was a buy-in phase with Elenz, too.
“It took a little bit last year, I would say three-quarters of the year to really understand Dave and his tone, what he’s thinking,” Gragson added. “After spending that year with him, I have full-on confidence in him. I don’t want to say we had disagreements, but we just had different opinions on stuff and I’ve learned to trust his opinion and he’s learned to trust my opinion.
“I look at him almost like a big brother or a father figure, trying to spend time and go to him for advice. We talk everyday and I’ve become really close with him and his family, just trying to be as close to him as possible. He’s one of my best friends.”
Collectively, having this core group of people around Gragson, along with team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., has helped mature Gragson.
Through 10 races this year, Gragson said he’s attacking each race differently with more of a methodical pace. He’s also been able to “comprehend a lot more in a shorter amount of time.”
“I guess that’s how you could say I’ve matured and been able to find my niche and my group of people that support me, the people who have my best interest and have my back,” Gragson said. “That’s where Dave Elenz, Josh Wise, Brandon McReynolds – it might be constructive criticism at times, but I feel like I’m able to comprehend that and learn from my mistakes and learn what I can do to be the best I can be.
“Obviously there’s going to be bumps in the road and we see that, but just trying to take it as a learning opportunity is the biggest goal in mind and what I’m trying to focus on.”
Elenz seconds Gragson’s opinion, believing Gragson knows what he’s looking for in order to achieve success on the racetrack.
“I think one of the biggest things he is doing this year compared to what he was doing last year is studying, watching film,” Elenz added. “He understands what he’s looking for in the film, where last year at this point, he didn’t know what Bristol was supposed to feel like. He had an idea from what everyone told him, but didn’t really know what the feeling needed to be.
“Now, he has that background knowledge. He’s doing a better job studying than he ever has. The mental game throughout the race to stay focused is at an all-time high for him. I’ve been impressed with everything he’s put together and he’s really matured a lot from this time last year.”
Wise believes the way Gragson handles adversity has been one of the hard lessons he had to learn from this year to last.
“Really how he’s able to overcome adversity is the best example,” Wise said of Gragson’s maturing stage. “How he manages the challenges [..]His mindset and how he not only approaches the races and thinks about them, but how he manages them within the race and the challenges that come and the mental strategies that he puts to use now have been the biggest gains and impacted his performance.”
McReynolds believes Gragson’s awareness of finishing races this year has played a part in his on-track success.
“He’s always been big on talking about executing and doing a good job throughout the whole race,” McReynolds said. “But I think this year he’s really done a good job of how to get through that four quarters of the race so to speak, or three stages and finish the job.
“I think it’s just another year under his belt. He’s learning how to finish the job when last year he was just focused on trying to learn the tracks and now he’s focused on going out and winning races.”
Meanwhile, Earnhardt has had to have some tough sit-down conversations with Gragson over the past year, including when Gragson admits he was “unmotivated.”
By getting Earnhardt’s perspective at lunch one day last summer, it shed light on Gragson and why he’s racing for JRM.
“Just get his aspect and try to listen to him and observe what he’s saying, I feel like was most important,” Gragson said. “I really lean on him and appreciate the opportunity to be able to talk to a guy who’s been able to win races in the Cup Series and who’s a Hall of Famer.
“That would be the turning point, or the point that I would say was the most important lesson. It’s just not to take the highs too high and the lows too low and not try to wave the wave too much.”
Earnhardt admitted two weeks ago on his Dale Jr. Download podcast that he texted Gragson following the run-in with Allgaier at Bristol, noting he didn’t want that to happen again, though happy Gragson got the victory. You could say they were words of wisdom from the boss.
But even Earnhardt has seen drastic improvement in Gragson’s performance from his rookie season. He still can keep it real, too, believing there’s room for his drive to improve, both personally and professionally.
“He’s still got a long ways to go in maturing,” Earnhardt told Frontstretch. “We can’t expect too much, but there’s still some moments that I think he can learn from and do differently in the next situation that’s similar. I want to be honest, that he’s still very young, so you try to temper your expectations. But, in this sport you’ve got to grow up fast.
“I’ll tell you one thing about Noah: he might get down and he might get upset, but he’s so easy to turn around. He’s so easy with a small conversation to right that ship and get him focused again. I think that’s getting easier each year. The first year we worked together, we had to have a lot of long conversations to get his morale up and that’s getting easier and easier as he gets more comfortable.”
But Gragson knows he still has a ways to go in maturing.
“I’ve got a lot of growing up to do still, but just trying to live the moment as best I can and appreciate the opportunity,” he said. “Just trying to take it day-by-day and be the best that I can.”
Gragson is heading into Talladega Superspeedway this weekend as the points leader.
- The Xfinity Series heads to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend with 39 entries on the preliminary entry list. It’s the third Dash 4 Cash race, with AJ Allmendinger, Chase Briscoe, Brandon Jones and Ross Chastain eligible for the $100,000.
- In the first of two races at Homestead last weekend, Chase Briscoe had chunks of ballast fall from under his No. 98 Ford. Because of that, his crew chief Richard Boswell, car chief Nick Hutchins and engineer DJ Vanderley have all been suspended for four races, meaning the earliest they could return is July 9 at Kentucky Speedway.
- Last week, Myatt Snider announced he has found enough funding to run the entire Xfinity schedule. He will continue driving the No. 21 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing and No. 93 for RSS Racing, filling out a full, 33-race schedule.