By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Kaz Grala had an unexpected welcome to the NASCAR Cup Series, but certainly made the most out of the opportunity by finishing seventh in Sunday’s Go Bowling 235 at the Daytona International Speedway road course.
“I never thought my NASCAR Cup Series debut would come in this nature,” said Grala. “I first want to say that I’m thankful that Austin’s symptoms are mild and that his wife Whitney and baby Ace are healthy. I hope to see him back in the car next week at Dover International Speedway. It certainly was an honor to get the call from Richard Childress and drive his iconic No. 3 American Ethanol Chevrolet. I honestly had a blast. These Cup cars have so much power, which I really enjoyed.”
A day prior to the green flag, Grala got the nod of filling in for Austin Dillon after testing positive for COVID-19. The goal was to finish in the top-30, but still had to deliver as his racing future remains unknown after 2020.
65 grueling laps later, not only the 21-year-old Boston native got a top-10 in his debut for Richard Childress Racing, he also led three laps before making one final pit stop with 12 laps remaining. Something he didn’t fully realize while driving, but later described how it felt being the race leader.
“I couldn’t tell necessarily that I was leading, but I did hear that everyone else had pitted and we were on a slightly different strategy,” said Grala. “That was pretty cool to get to lead some laps in my first Cup race. It definitely was a lot of fun.”
While a shot of an upset win was out of reach, Grala showed some muscle as he worked his way into the top-10 before the caution came out for Kyle Busch crashing in “NASCAR Turn 2” with five to go.
Once the race resumed with two to go, Grala had his work cut out for as he had to earn that top-10 spot, especially when he was dealing with cramps all over this body. Through the pain, he got the job done despite not having any seating time nor expecting to even run the 14-turn road course.
“It was definitely intense. These Cup races are no joke and are really long. These guys are some pretty incredible athletes. I’ve certainly been working on my fitness the last couple of years and I feel like I was in a decent spot for my Cup debut,” said Grala. “If I was going start doing this every weekend, I think I could use to make a little more progress there, but it didn’t seem like it affected our performance at the end and I’m glad for that.”
Grala credited Sunday’s positive outing to Dillon’s crew chief Justin Alexander for playing a big role on his race strategy and subsequent result.
“He called an excellent strategic race, which really helped us get up there and compete inside the top-20 most of the day. We were able to lead laps in my NASCAR Cup Series debut, and it was fun to mix it up with some of my childhood heroes,” said Grala. “Before the last caution, I made a bold, three-wide move on a restart, which got us a ton of positions. I don’t really know what I was thinking, but it worked and put us around 12th. We were in pretty good shape with some fresher tires than the guys ahead of us and opted to stay out under the last caution. We were able to pick off a few more of those guys to finish comfortably inside the top-10.”
It wasn’t the first time the impromptu driver/crew chief worked together because Alexander called the shots for Grala in five Xfinity Series races last year, highlighted with a fifth at Road America.
“Justin is a professional and is a really smart guy. I actually had the chance to work with him last year with RCR, so it was really good that he and a I had really good communication. He kind of understood my lingo, so that was great,” Grala on Alexander. “With so much discomfort coming into a weekend like this, so much happening around me and so much pressure. To at least be able to work with somebody that I was somewhat familiar with and felt at home definitely helped made everything easier for me.”
When describing his emotions during pace laps, Grala commented that he soaked it all in because his Cup debut was in Daytona, a track that’s had a rich and tragic history for the historic NASCAR car number.
Not only that, Grala’s father carried the No. 3 and so did he throughout his racing career ranging from bandoleros to the regional series.
“A lot of things have moved pretty quickly. It’s certainly have been overwhelming,” Grala on the past 24 hours. “I took my time on the grid and on the pace laps to soak it in and understand the gravity of that moment. It’s unbelievable to be racing in the Cup Series under any circumstances, but to do it in the No. 3 car was just incredible.
“The number three has held a really special place in my heart for my whole career. Never in my wildest dreams would I’ve thought my Cup debut would come in it, but I’m so grateful to Richard and everybody at Richard Childress Racing for believing in me and trusting me in one of their Cup cars.”
Time will tell when Grala’s next Cup opportunity will be because in order for Dillon to return back in the No. 3 car, where he’s already in the playoffs due to his win at Texas last month, he’ll need to have two negative tests in a span of 24 hours before being medically cleared by NASCAR.
For now, Sunday’s impressive result could raise some eyebrows from car owners who might be looking for a young, hungry competitor. Grala hopes it’ll eventually happen as he’s on a limited schedule with RCR in Xfinity this year, highlighted with a career best fourth at Road America last Saturday.
“I don’t know how it’s going the help, but I really hope it does though. I love to find myself in a full-time ride. I do think that being able to race every weekend does make you better. You learn so much more and feel fresher when you get into the car. I’m glad I raced last weekend. It’d be a huge advantage to run full-time and chase an Xfinity Series championship for them with the ultimate goal of running on Sundays every weekend.
“Today was a dream come true and I hope I made everyone in Welcome, all of the guys on the No. 3 team, Austin Dillon and all of RCR’s partners proud. That green No. 3 American Ethanol Chevrolet is iconic and it meant a lot to be able to sport American Ethanol’s colors today. I hope to have the opportunity to be racing on Sundays in the future.”