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Take him or leave him: Noah Gragson is fast, frustrating and ready to compete for a title

Noah Gragson doesn’t sugarcoat anything. That happens to be one of the traits that either draws fans in or pushes them away from the third-year full-time Xfinity Series driver.

He has zero regrets.

“I don’t feel that I would change anything because I try to learn from the mistakes and grow as a person,” Gragson told NASCAR.com before the Xfinity Series race at Richmond Raceway, which he would later win. “And without those opportunities and moments, I don’t think I can really learn from it.”

Gragson is alluding to his start of the 2021 season. At Homestead-Miami Speedway, the No. 9 Chevrolet was in prime position to win in South Beach, but unfortunate circumstances stopped him in his tracks. This time, it was David Starr’s No. 13 car blowing a tire and coming up the race track in front of the No. 9 Chevrolet. There was nowhere for Gragson to go.

After the race, Gragson had some choice words for Starr and MBM Motorsports, mentioning the driver was always in the way. Three weeks later at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Gragson put his car in reverse during a pit stop to exit his stall. When doing so, he nearly clipped a couple of Daniel Hemric’s pit crew members. Following that event, the two drivers swung at each other.

“There’s nothing you can do,” Gragson said on if he’d take back anything from earlier in the year. “It’s easy to Monday-morning-quarterback it.”

The spring wasn’t too kind to the No. 9 team. Through the opening 13 races of the season, Gragson had six DNFs (four due to crashes; two to engine failures) with an average result of 20.8. In the last of those incidents at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, he was out after Turn 1 of the opening lap, when his entire front end was junked from narrowly going in the grass.

But the team knew it had speed. Two-time championship-winning crew chief Dave Elenz wasn’t concerned, despite what it looked like from the outside looking in.

“The results at the beginning of the year were not good, but (Gragson) and I didn’t focus on the results because there’s a lot of factors that can damage our results,” Elenz said. “Our performance is what we can control, and both him and I felt very strong about the performance that he was putting on at the race track.

“Results are results and it’s what we have to talk about, but I don’t see that hurting us at this point of the year because I still have the confidence in him and he still has the confidence in me.”

Internally, though, Gragson was concerned with the results. During the midst of the stretch, he wasn’t sure if he’d even be returning to JR Motorsports for a fourth season in 2022. He thought about that daily.

MORE: Noah Gragson returns to JR Motorsports for 2022 | NXS Silly Season tracker 

“I think it was all rock bottom,” he said of his early season struggles. “I’m a guy where, if it’s good I’m on top of the world and if it’s bad, I’m at the bottom with the lowest of lows. It’s tough being that way because you have a bad day when you get back home, but I’m able to rebound. For a few days, it’s tough after a bad race or if something doesn’t go your way, you’re like, ‘(Expletive), I just want it to turn around.’”

Gragson credits Elenz, his family, Brandon McReynolds (manager), Kristen Bauer (director of business development/partnerships at JR Motorsports) and others for keeping him on track when things are tough. Their continued support motivates him to rebound.

“I’m more like family, so it’s more like a little brother-type relationship than it is me getting caught up in the details of those moments,” McReynolds, who formed a friendship with Gragson while competing in the K&N West Series, said. “What you see is what you get, and that’s what I’ve always appreciated about Noah. Even where there’s times when I’ll say, ‘Don’t do that.’”

Away from the track, McReynolds states Gragson is the same way. He also believes the 23-year-old has matured by smoothing out the highs and lows and taking in the success.

With recent victories at Darlington Raceway and Richmond, it’s possible he’s taking it in more than ever because of the terrible start to the season.

On the flip side, when Gragson has a parts failure or gets caught up in an incident he didn’t start, he’s going to show his displeasure. That’s just who he is. You can’t change it, so don’t bother trying.

“For a long time, I was trying to look at Noah, especially in his K&N and Truck Series days and even a little bit into Xfinity on how to change him and make him go about everything he was doing on track and off track, social media, interviews, how would I do it,” said McReynolds, who works for Truex Management Group. “Where I think we’ve grown as a group and support system from a management side — and it takes a team of us, it’s not just me — is, being more supportive of who he is and that he is a fun, West Coast kid.

“He just needs to be himself and always keep the focus on what he can be doing better on and off the track. If you can create that culture, in my opinion, it starts taking care of itself.”

Since that last-place finish at Mid-Ohio, Gragson has put together a streak of 11 top-10 finishes in the second half of the regular season (13 races). Before his two wins, though, he was points racing, which wasn’t much fun.

Quite simply, it doesn’t fit someone’s style that enjoys being the talk of the town.

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“It sucks ass, it’s horrible,” Gragson said. “I can do it, but it’s not who I am. I want to put on a show and be on the highlight reel. I think you just build your brand more that way. No matter how you get into the spotlight, you’re going to grow attention. Any way you can get in the headlines, you’re going to grow attention to yourself.

“I always like to see guys do cool moves on the race track; make a three-wide, four-wide pass and do something where you feel like, ‘Damn, I didn’t think that was going to stick. I don’t know how that guy did that.’ That’s what I try to do, it’s just my style.”

But with consecutive wins just before the regular-season finale at Bristol Motor Speedway, Gragson has jumped up to fourth on the playoff grid with 17 playoff points.

The late-season surge has caught the eye of JR Motorsports co-owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“You can’t count him out,” Earnhardt said to a group of media following his lone Xfinity Series start of the year at Richmond. “I was saying to myself, ‘Man, what’s going on with this kid?’ They do everything they do and they didn’t change anything and they just start winning. When he’s winning — everybody is the same way, I’m the same way — you solve the problem. He might be dangerous with a little confidence.”

And with the current layout of postseason tracks, Gragson should be confident. A season ago, he had top-three finishes in six of the seven playoff races, but bounced out of the playoffs after the Round of 12 because of an early wreck at Kansas Speedway.

Seeing their championship hopes dwindle in front of them a season ago, Elenz knows playoff points could be the difference between contending for the championship at Phoenix and not.

“We had a really good run in the playoffs and we had one bad race and still missed it by just a few points to get to Phoenix,” he said. “Having those playoff points to help get us to Phoenix, I think, is the most important thing we’ve done over the last couple of weeks because we were in a pretty bad spot in playoff points.”

Gragson agrees.

“I think that’s everything,” he said. “We would like to be in a better position, but I feel like we’re going to be alright. I’m confident with ourselves.”

So with the way the year started for the No. 9 team, would it be a tad surprising to get to Phoenix with a chance at the championship?

Or is Gragson among the championship favorites by showing a ton of speed in the waning weeks of the regular season?

“It seems like (Elenz’s teams) always trend in the right direction right around the playoffs,” McReynolds said. “I don’t know if they’re going to be sneaky because they’ve had a way of being able to get the team going pretty strong around this time of year consistently. But three weeks ago, I don’t think anyone would have said Noah is going to sweep the next two races. The consistency is starting to jive and they’re hitting their stride at the right time.”

But even Gragson paused for six seconds when he was asked if he believed the No. 9 team was championship caliber. Then, he went on to score the checkered flag at Richmond.

“With the way it’s gone, results-wise, no,” he said. “With how well I know this team, absolutely, 100%. I know we can do it, so I have the utmost confidence that we can win the championship.”

The playoffs kick off at Gragson’s home track, Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, NBCSN, NBC Sports App, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), where he’s never finished worse than sixth in five Xfinity Series starts.