Healthy, happy Gragson eager to win in debut for Johnson
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Noah Gragson shotgunned his beer in a NASCAR victory celebration at Martinsville and chucked the empty can into the stands. This is the same driver who admits his gut felt like junk last season because he binged White Claws every day for weeks during the pandemic.
He blamed the lingering effects of the booze as a reason why he puked at times last season while still behind the wheel. NASCAR’s good-times guy also once used the tip of a Gladiator sword gifted to the Bristol winner to pierce open yet another beer can.
So it might seem his new boss -- a driver with a bit of a tame reputation in victory lane -- could suggest to Gragson he cool it on the sword-swinging, beer-chugging, hold-your-breath-until-you-vomit ways as he starts his first full season in the Cup Series.
Jimmie Johnson’s advice to the Legacy Motor Club driver ahead of Sunday’s Daytona 500 was simple: “Be you, man.”
“He’s like, ‘I’m vanilla during my time and that’s just who I was,’” Gragson said of his conversation with the seven-time NASCAR champion. “‘You’ve got to be you and I really think you’ve got a bright future ahead of you if you keep everything going. We haven’t really seen anything like you from the personality side.’ He doesn’t want to hold me back from that. I’m going continue to be myself and have fun.”
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The 24-year-old Gragson, though, is keen on making serious changes without surrendering all the fun.
The pivotal adjustment is the full-time ride in Cup this season after he made 18 starts a year ago, including five for Hendrick Motorsports and the injured Alex Bowman, before he signed with what was Petty GMS Racing. Johnson came aboard in the offseason and rebranded the team. His arrival brought instant credibility to the longtime middling organization and Johnson became a fast mentor to both Gragson and 26-year-old driver Erik Jones.
Johnson took the team in January to New York for a news conference, nice meals out and a little sightseeing. The trio even recreated the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album cover — only trading the zebra crossing in London for New York.
The trip helped the 47-year-old Johnson — who will try to qualify for the Daytona 500 after a two-season dalliance in IndyCar — get to know Gragson beyond his gregarious personality.
“I am really impressed with his commitment to going racing,” Johnson said. “I know from watching on television, he has a big personality. I didn’t realize his attention to detail. Truly a student of the sport.”
Wins help, too.
Gragson won eight times last season in the Xfinity Series and 13 times overall over the last three seasons. He had one top-five finish in 18 Cup starts that included a 31st-place finish in the Daytona 500. Gragson raced his way into the Daytona 500 last season as an open entry driving for Beard Motorsports. He suffered three failed inspections in qualifying for Beard in 2021 and then wrecked in the Duel.
Legacy M.C has a charter and a guaranteed spot in the field Sunday. That should somewhat steel his nerves.
“I was really nervous last year about making it in just because in 2021 we had a bunch of problems with tech,” Gragson said. “They’re pretty stressful.”
Gragson had a troubling habit of throwing up at times after races — sometimes in his car — that he blamed on everything from nerves to alcohol to even holding his breath in the final, frantic laps of a race. So he decided to clean up his act and turn to a more healthy lifestyle. While he’ll never be a fitness freak like Johnson, Gragson gave up his favorite fried foods and snacks and worked more chicken, salmon and other healthier foods into his diet.
Gragson said Tuesday he hasn’t had a drink in about two months. He still had just as much fun in the offseason with his buddies at the bar without mood-changing alcoholic drinks.
“I don’t want to have take a Tums to sleep,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like I’m giving up anything. I’m not saying I’ve cleaned up everything, exactly, but I don’t feel like it’s that hard. You’ve just got to commit to do it.”
Johnson believed Gragson was serious in his commitment to winning and dumping some bad habits.
“He can certainly adapt to any situation,” Johnson said. “He’s a free spirit. I think that shows through on television. But at the same time, he’s been on pro status, as well. I think he’s good a good ability to balance both sides of it.”
Still, bills have to be paid and Gragson wore a fast-food hamburger chain hat as part of a racing sponsorship deal. No one said Gragson had to go cold turkey on a hot burger all season. Some things are just better in moderation — except winning.
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