NASCAR driver Noah Gragson joins Petty GMS, will drive No. 42 car in Cup Series

·6 min read

Noah Gragson sat in front of a Chevy Camaro that sports one of the most iconic numbers in NASCAR — 42 — and told a story.

It was October 2021, he recounted. At Martinsville. He’d just won the NASCAR Xfinity Series to advance to the Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway when an unexpected visitor dropped by Victory Lane.

It was Kyle Petty.

“A piece of our car came off in the burnout (celebration),” Gragson said. “The tire ripped part of the quarter-panel off, and he showed me it and said, ‘I grabbed this off the track on the front stretch, and I want you to sign this for me. I want to put it in my office.’

“And I was like, ‘Why are you wanting me sign something for you?’”

Gragson used this story on Wednesday afternoon at the Petty GMS headquarters in Statesville to address a few things at once: He said it to convey his enthusiasm to join Petty GMS as its newest Cup Series driver for at least the 2023 season, news that was confirmed about a week after it was first reported by Jordan Bianchi of The Athletic. But he also said it to answer that while he doesn’t have a connection to the No. 42, specifically — he does have a connection to the people who’ve brought it acclaim.

Noah Gragson stands with the trophy after winning a NASCAR Xfinity Series auto race Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Darlington, S.C. (AP Photo/John Amis) John Amis/AP
Noah Gragson stands with the trophy after winning a NASCAR Xfinity Series auto race Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Darlington, S.C. (AP Photo/John Amis) John Amis/AP

“It’s pretty special for (Kyle Petty) to think of me that way, and I really look up to him,” Gragson said. “So I’m excited to be able to carry the 42 number into the future.”

The No. 42 car has ties back to when the sport was just beginning, when pioneer and NASCAR-first-family-patriarch Lee Petty made it famous. Petty GMS chair and all-time winningest Cup Series driver Richard Petty said that Gragson was the right person to pick up and push that legacy further.

“When we became Petty GMS, we had the chance to look at some different numbers,” The King told The Observer, referring to the December merger between GMS Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports. “We looked at the 45 car, the 44 car, some different deals. But we said, ‘Look, if it’s going to be Petty GMS, we already got the 43 Petty car, let’s get the 42 Petty car, and that brings my father back into the history part of the deal. So the 42 car and the Petty clan have a lot of experience.”

Petty added: “This is the kind of guy we need for Petty GMS to go forward in the future.”

Gragson is a part-time Cup Series driver and Xfinity Series championship contender this year. The 24-year-old has particularly impressed on the Xfinity circuit: In 123 career starts, he’s notched eight wins, 52 top-five finishes and 85 top-10 finishes — and this year alone, driving the No. 9 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports, he’s notched three victories and sits second in Xfinity Series playoff points (behind Ty Gibbs).

Noah Gragson (9), AJ Allmendinger (16) and Sammy Smith (18) race during the New Holland 250 NASCAR Xfinity Series auto race at the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) Paul Sancya/AP
Noah Gragson (9), AJ Allmendinger (16) and Sammy Smith (18) race during the New Holland 250 NASCAR Xfinity Series auto race at the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) Paul Sancya/AP

Gragson will join the Petty GMS team just as it bids farewell to Ty Dillon, who announced in July that he and Petty GMS “mutually agreed to go our separate ways” at the conclusion of the 2022 season. That marks less than one year with a Cup driver on the 42 team.

As far as Petty GMS and GMS Racing President Mike Beam is concerned that reflects a simple truth: We need to win now.

“We don’t have time,” said Beam, who’s been in NASCAR for 50 years. “We’ve gotta go. It’s the honest-to-God’s truth. We’re not going to mess around here. ... There’s really no budget. We’re just buying what we need to run well. But we cannot have any — I don’t wanna say ‘weak link,’ but we just gotta go.”

Gragson acknowledged that his youth and limited experience at the Cup level could be considered a risk.

“You’re not going to make it to the top of Mount Everest overnight,” Gragson said. “You gotta take it step by step. If we can get better every day, we think we can achieve that goal of winning Cup races.”

And for what it’s worth: Beam and Petty made clear that any risk is outweighed by Gragson’s potential.

“(Petty GMS owner) Maury (Gallagher) has a soft spot in his heart to help young people, to a certain point,” Beam said before listing off a whole bunch of young staff Gallagher has helped jump-start their careers. He then added, “Noah being a risk? You know, we’re good with it. Because I feel we can manage him. I’m not afraid of it.”

Said Petty: “We know of his capabilities, and we think he’s capable of doing more. I don’t think it’s a gamble in any way, shape or form. A lot of times, when you go with veteran drivers, they’re used to driving other kinds of cars. These cars, there’s a completely different way to drive them. ... He’s run a few races this year to kind of get him accustomed to the new cars, and that’ll help him when he starts the season next year.”

The car driven by Austin Dillon is pushed to the inspection area before the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux) John Raoux/AP
The car driven by Austin Dillon is pushed to the inspection area before the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux) John Raoux/AP

Other NASCAR free agents to look out for

Petty GMS’s announcement is one of the biggest splashes of so-called “Silly Season,” when drivers across the sport join or re-sign with teams.

Among those names is Kyle Busch. The Hall-of-Fame caliber driver and only active multi-time Cup champion doesn’t have a contract for the 2023 season.

It’s not because he wants to leave — Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing have stated that they want to continue the successful partnership that dates back to 2008 — it’s because JGR hasn’t yet secured a primary sponsor for Busch’s No. 18 team after Mars Inc. announced it’d exit NASCAR after decades of involvement in the sport. Busch’s free agency will continue to be among the most consequential story lines in 2022.

Ty Dillon is also searching for a home in 2023. The driver, who will finish out the 2022 season with Petty GMS but will not return in 2023, joined GMS Racing in October 2021 prior to its merger with Richard Petty Motorsports. Dillon sits 30th in the playoff points standings ahead of the third-to-last regular-season race this weekend in Richmond.