Noah Gragson Gets Second Chance With Owners Who Have Also Courted Controversy
Noah Gragson is getting a second chance in the NASCAR Cup Series after his disappointing rookie season ended in controversy. Gragson signed a multi-year deal to drive the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Ford for the 2024 season, replacing veteran Aric Almirola. With Gragson’s suspension still relatively fresh, perhaps co-owners Tony Stewart and Greg Haas understand better than most second chances are sometimes worthy given their own professional hardships.
Gragson was suspended in August by NASCAR and then released from Legacy Motor Club for his “actions on social media.” Specifically, Gragson “liked” an insensitivef Instagram post making light of George Floyd’s death in police custody in 2020. The officer, Derek Chauvin, is currently serving a 21-year prison sentence. He was found guilty in 2021 of two counts of murder and one count of second-degree manslaughter.
NASCAR reinstated Gragson in September after the 25-year-old completed diversity and inclusion training. He signed with Stewart-Haas Dec. 13, joining owners who are no strangers to controversy.
Tony Stewart proved to be one of the more polarizing drivers during his career, particularly in the 2000s. Stewart had notable spats with several drivers during this period, including Jeff Gordon, Brian Vickers, Matt Kenseth and others. He was fined $50,000 by NASCAR in 2002 for striking a photographer. He was fined $50,000 again in 2004 after striking Vickers following an on-track incident. In 2006, he was penalized a lap by NASCAR for rough driving after wrecking Clint Bowyer.
Stewart also took verbal jabs at some fellow competitors and others. He once sharply criticized Elliot Sadler following a wreck, suggesting he should expect such whenever he is within half a lap of the former Cup Series driver. He also irked many fans when Dale Earnhardt Jr. broke a four-year losing streak in 2012. Stewart quipped, “It’s not a national holiday, guys.”
The most significant controversy surrounding Stewart’s driving career occurred in 2014. While driving in a sprint car race in New York, Stewart and fellow driver Kevin Ward Jr. made contact, spinning out Ward Jr into the outside wall. Ward Jr. exited his car in apparent frustration at Stewart and continued walking down the track surface. He was then struck by the right rear tire of Stewart’s car, which killed the 20-year-old driver.
Stewart was not charged for the incident. The Ontario District Attorney finding “no basis for criminal charges,” USA Today reported. The D.A. added a toxicology report showed Ward Jr. was “under the influence of marijuana at a high enough level to impair judgement.”
Gene Haas, founder of Haas Automation and the racing team that would become Stewart-Haas, also goes without an unblemished professional record.
Haas served 16 months of a two-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit tax evasion for “bogus expenses” reported by Haas Automation to “avoid payment of more than $20 million in federal income taxes.”
Earlier this year, Haas Automation was the subject of a PBS Newshour report alleging the company was supplying Russia amid sanctions against the country for its invasion of Ukraine. The company responded the allegations were “demonstrably false.” But PBS alleges the company “may still be supplying the Russian arms industry indirectly.”
As such, it stands to reason both Haas and Stewart could be sympathetic to the controversial end to Gragson’s 2023 campaign.
Sponsorship remains a question for the team, however. While Gragson’s new owners might feel he’s deserving of a second chance, companies might feel some trepidation about sponsoring the No. 10.
Smithfield, which sponsored the No. 10 team for several years with Almirola, is not returning to NASCAR in 2023.