By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It was past midnight at the Daytona International Speedway when a late-race carnage beckoned the second race of the Bluegreen Duels.
In the end, the greatest benefactor was Kaz Grala. Not only he got the free pass, but thanks to David Ragan finishing eighth, the 2017 Truck Series Daytona winner will make his first 500 appearance.
Grala was already appreciative of Ragan because at around 2011, he got to experience a NASCAR race from the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing pit box at Loudon. That was thanks to Ragan for giving him and the family pit passes, which created a lifelong memory.
“David kind of knew the situation and obviously he has to do what’s best for his team and manufacturer,” Grala on Ragan. “I can tell you behind the pack when I couldn’t hold the draft, I was rooting for him to get up there, see if he can make some waves and beat those other two guys.
“Ultimately, in a roundabout way, with some action in between that isn’t what end up happening.”
The situation that put Grala in a better spot took place on Lap 56. Garrett Smithley had a strong run on the field heading into Turn 1. The scenario for him was that he needed to be the top open car to make his first Daytona 500 start.
However, his strong run came into a scratching halt as Brad Keselowski closed the door and it led to an accordion effect on the field. Noah Gragson, who also had to be the top open car finisher to make the 500, was collected right away.
Other drivers involved included Ross Chastain and William Byron, who had one of the strongest cars on the grid. While those two are in the 500, Gragson won’t have that sigh of relief as his No. 62 Beard Motorsports Chevrolet was pancaked.
It left him no other choice but get out of his stricken machine and accept that his Cup Series debut will have to wait another time. A heartbreaking blow to the team following the passing of owner Mark Beard, Sr. earlier this month.
Smithley voiced his displeasure on Keselowski for coming up towards him over the radio and brought his car back to pit road. While some repairs were made, they simply ran out of time as No. 13 MBM Motorsports crew had to pit before the final restart.
Therefore, Smithley will miss his first-ever Cup start in his career as he made each of his 43 starts. For the Carl Long owned team, neither of their cars will run the 200-lap mecca as Timmy Hill failed to qualify in Duel Race No. 1 Thursday night.
Grala had to be relieved after bringing home his No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevy home in 14th. More importantly, take the 40th and final spot for Sunday’s 63rd running of the Daytona 500.
Being caught in an earlier crash with Smithley, Anthony Alfredo and Chase Briscoe on the backstretch, Grala had to hope for a miracle to make the 500.
“I tried keeping my emotions as checked as possible, but that was the most stressed I ever been in a race,” said Grala. “When we’re a lap down and got damage from an incident that started behind us, then you’re really out of control. You’re hoping for something to work out in your favor.”
Fortunately for the Massachusetts native, he got his wish and will get a second Cup start this Sunday. It’ll also be Kaulig Racing’s second straight appearance in “The Great American Race” as their partnership together is only the beginning.
“Really proud of everybody at Kaulig Racing. They brought an excellent car that got a little bit beat up,” said Grala. “I’m sure we’ll be able to get it fixed or pull out an equally good car on Sunday.”
He’ll roll off in the 20th and final row alongside Austin Cindric, who also made the 500 via his qualifying speed thanks to Ryan Preece being the top open car.
“We’re starting last, so we only got one direction to go. For me personally, everything from here is a bonus. That’s the way I like to race,” said Grala. “Watching too many races from my house has definitely made me that much more grateful when I’m at the racetrack.
“To now be there on a Sunday for the Daytona 500, it doesn’t get much better than that. So, I know I’m going to be having a lot of fun. No matter how it goes, but we’ll certainly put our best effort forward and do something incredible.”