By now, you’ve probably heard that JR Motorsports Xfinity Series driver Noah Gragson was penalized by NASCAR for violating the driver Code Of Conduct clause for rough driving at Road America this past weekend. And while we can debate about the delay in penalties assessed and/or the severity of those penalties, after gauging the social media chatter, especially during the 2022 season, it’s time to have a real discussion about aggressive driving in the stock car ranks. How far is too far? We would hope that NASCAR has set those boundaries, but the truth is that this is one of the things NASCAR has never been decisive on, opting instead to go on a case by case basis through the years. But, once you take a good look at why they have chosen to do it this way, you can start to understand their dilemma.
First of all, stock car racing when done right is a high speed game of chess. Despite how the sport has been defined by those who know it not, it isn’t just guys going around in circles. The sport of auto racing in general is a complex business. And in the sport today, technology has come into play in a huge way, and on the highest levels of the sport, that leaves lap times mere thousandths of seconds apart from team to team. So with the racing so tight, drivers on the track have to learn to be great at psychological warfare to get that extra advantage. Especially in the ranks of stock car racing. And the drivers that don’t learn to master that craft will get lost in the fray. And as a matter of fact, when it comes to NASCAR’s top tier divisions, if you don’t master the mind game, you will indeed get lost in the shuffle.
This part of the deal is not debatable. It’s just the reality of the sport. Like anything in life, when it comes to competition, only the strongest survive. Despite what you have been told over the last several years, participation trophies mean nothing when it comes to entering into the history books or being considered one of the best. You don’t have to like it, as that’s just a fact of life. It may seem unfair to some, but the saying “Nice guys finish last” is often the case. That’s not always the case, so I’ll give the detractors that, but 9 times out of 10, the most aggressive athlete will generally come out on top. And if you do the research, you’ll find that to be especially true in auto racing.
In recent years, it seems as though there is a growing number of people that want to forget the true origins of the sport of stock car racing. I have had several “debates” with those who seem to want the sport to be known as having pristine beginnings. Truth be told, if that were the case, NASCAR as we know it wouldn’t even be, as NASCAR was born to “tame” the sport. Well, if you could call it a sport at the time. While true that the organization known as NASCAR formed to be the sanctioning body to a sport that had no centralization, it goes much deeper than that. There were other groups vying to be the sanctioning body of the sport, but the most positive appeal that Bill France’s group had was a willingness to “tame” the sport. What people want to forget is that stock car racing in it’s beginnings was nothing much more than a thrill show, with billings that read, “Watch the daredevils risk their lives in life defying competition.” Most of the competitors were either moonshine runners competing to prove who had the fastest outlaw car, or the World War 2 veteran looking to feed his new addiction to adrenaline, formed in the previous years of facing death on the battlefield. It was a sport where you could put a monkey in the car to bring the fans in and one driver named Tim Flock did just that with his monkey “Jocko Flocko” until a piece of debris hit Jocko in the head and he went on a rampage in the car.
The sport needed structure and Bill France’s new organization was the best group to fill the bill and bring the sport from racing in farmer’s fields with the payout coming from race promoters paying drivers through half cracked windshields’ with a rifle in their lap in case the payout got out of hand as the payout was generally never as advertised. And Bill France and his new organization was tasked to bring the sport from that to his new vision of superspeedways and the prestige that other forms of auto sports were starting to enjoy. Let’s not pretend that they had an easy job of it. And let’s not pretend that the origins of the sport were anything other than what I described. I am fortunate enough to live in the heart of NASCAR NATION here in North Carolina and through my life I’ve learned a thing or two about it. The fact is that the sport of stock car racing demands a bit of aggressive driving, so let’s get that out of the way and stop pretending. The true question is – when does aggressive driving become over aggressive driving? The saying “Rubbing is racing” still holds true no matter what your thoughts are on that. This is a sport where the threat of death is all too real. And a true competitor uses every tool in his tool box. A champion asks his competitor every week on the track, how far are you willing to go? But that said, in anything in life, there is also a line you shouldn’t cross. Drivers going for it should be expected to lean on each other. It’s what makes the sport of stock car racing unique from all other forms of the sport of auto racing. That should never be taken off the table, and I’ll add that those who would want to should probably gravitate to one of those other forms of racing. I’m not afraid to say it. But, I’ll add that there is aggressive driving, and then there’s dirty driving.
Dirty driving should be discouraged at all costs. That’s when NASCAR has to act as they did in this case. JR Motorsports representative Kelley Earnhardt alluded to that fact in her statement after the penalty when she put out the statement on Twitter : “We understand today’s penalty. Noah is a passionate race car driver and his actions occurred during the heat of the moment. Learning how and when to keep emotions in check is all part of the learning experience.” Some of course will not be happy with that statement, but everyone should pay attention to the last part. I’m not offering a defense to the comment, as I do try to be as unbiased as possible. But no team is going to trash their driver so the truth of the comment and how they feel about the situation is in the last part of it. The Earnhardts know a thing or two about aggressive driving. But they also know the strategy of it. That being said, they also know when the line is crossed. Sage Karam was exhibiting aggressive driving as he was exhibiting what he had learned from his eight stock car starts, and he put the fender to Noah Gragson. And Gragson felt he had to let Karam know that he didn’t accept it. But instead of being strategic about it, he crossed the line and turned Sage Karem on a straight in front of the field. And when NASCAR looked at it, they had to consider Noah Gragson’s tendencies.
In 2015 Noah Gragson tried to wreck Chris Eggelston for a K&N West (now ARCA West) race for the championship but he failed and wrecked himself. No harm no foul. In 2020 he wrecked Myatt Snider with 38 laps to go at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, seemingly on purpose on the front stretch, in which Snider paid him back at Pocono, spinning Gragson in front of the field causing a huge crash. NASCAR assessed no penalties to either driver. 2020 at Kentucky, Gragson put Harrison Burton in the wall, leading to a fight between the two in the garage area. That wreck didn’t seem intentional, but over aggressiveness came into play. No penalties. But then last year, Noah Gragson backed into Daniel Hemric on pit road, almost collecting a pit crew member, as he thought Hemric was squeezing him on pit road, leading to another fight for Noah, this time on pit road. No penalties. But this past weekend, with all that considered, NASCAR drew the line for Noah. There truly is a number of fine lines you must consider when competing in NASCAR. Be under aggressive and the sport may not even remember you as the years click by. But be over aggressive and you can tarnish your reputation. Noah is in the grey area right now, and what he does from this point forward will define it. Luckily for him, he is with an organization that knows where the line is, and if he is smart enough to listen to that guidance, he can start to find his balance and become a champion. But if not, he will forever be labeled just another dirty driver.
With the conversation of aggressive driving being ignited this year by drivers like Ross Chastain, the debate is heating up at the highest levels. In my opinion, you have to be aggressive as the sport demands it. But there is definitely a line that shouldn’t be crossed. I’ve stated my thoughts, but I am just one of many that will chime in, so my question to you, is where is that line? Should Noah Gragson have been penalized? Should his penalties have been more extreme? And most important of all, is the term “Rubbing is racing” still in play, or should NASCAR become another non contact sport? What’s your opinion?