JR Motorsports has been having an eventful offseason. Everything from rumors of starting a Cup team to them securing both Josh Berry and Sam Mayer for full-time 2022 campaigns. This news started speculation that Noah Gragson might be on his way out at the team. However, the team just announced that he will return to the 9-car next season.
Gragson has been a bit of an anomaly this year because speculation has been thrown around with him either getting fired from his Xfinity ride or jumping up to Cup. A wide span of possibilities, and Gragson’s 2021 season has left him without a clear career path. His struggles this season have been well documented and his reputation has suffered because of it. His highlights this season so far consist of fights and cringy comments and nothing to do with racing.
I think it’s fair to question whether or not this season is proof that Gragson isn’t capable of making it to the next level of NASCAR. This is easily is his worst season in Xfinity, and for seemingly no reason as his teammates are winning races. He’s still in the playoffs, but no wins, and an inconsistent record the entire season. The decision to bring him back to JRM is perplexing when you consider his struggles.
For me, Gragson has always been a middling talent. I think he’s capable of having a successful Cup career. I project his ceiling as a guy who could win one race a year and be an entertaining personality but never be a real champ threat. This season has made me question if that projection is being generous, however.
What Gragson has going for him, is that clearly, Dale Jr. believes in him. It’s been a developing fan opinion that Dale Jr. might be the greatest talent scout in racing history. He’s discovered and helped develop Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Alex Bowman, and now Josh Berry. He also deserves a little credit for signing and developing names like Chase Elliott, William Byron, and Tyler Reddick.
This offseason probably presented Dale Jr. with the opportunity to cut and run from the headache that is Noah Gragson, but he hasn’t. Sponsors like Bass Pro Shops and Black Rifle Coffee have probably helped with that decision, but I still believe that if Dale Jr. thought that his shenanigans off the track weren’t worth the talent, he would let him go.
I think that resigning this deal and having a clear focus on where he will be in 2022 helps him for the remainder of this season. His future plans have been looming heavy and eerily over Noah’s shoulder and this presents him with a fresh start to his 2021 season.
There were talks of Noah possibly working out some sponsorship to make the jump to Cup and had his 2021 season been more successful, maybe his team would’ve pulled the trigger on it. I think this decision to come back and race in championship equipment is the best move and allows him the development time he needs.
I think that today’s NASCAR has become too enchanted by the young phenom drivers like Chase Elliott, William Byron, and Ty Gibbs. Guys who are touted as next-generation stars and are moved through the ranks at rapid speeds. There is no shame in being a guy that takes longer to develop, in fact, it could be argued it’s better to be overdeveloped.
We saw the early struggles that a future star like Joey Logano had coming up and until this year William Byron was having a horrible time getting up to speed in Cup. We’re also seeing that guys like Christopher Bell and Erik Jones probably should’ve stayed in Xfinity for another year or two. Is Noah as talented as any of these guys? No, but he will be more developed and ready for when he does eventually get that Cup ride and can hit the ground running and be more than likely to hit that 1 win a year ceiling I discussed.