After Richard Childress Racing announced that Austin Dillon would not compete in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Go Bowling 235 at the Daytona International Speedway Road Course, fans on social media began to question why Kaz Grala, who had never run a NASCAR Cup Series race before, was named the fill-in driver.
At the end of a 65-lap masterclass in his NASCAR Cup Series debut, which ended in a seventh-place finish, Grala, who hails from Boston, MA, silenced the critics and showed that perhaps he is ready for a much larger role in this sport than his current yearly handful of races in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Due to a driver change from Dillon to Grala, the No. 3 machine would have to drop to the rear of the field for the start of Sunday’s race. However, Grala knew he needed to be patient and says the goal was to just get comfortable with the car in the opening Stage of the race.
“Well, we knew we had to start at the back due to the driver change, so I really took Stage 1 to get comfortable in the car,” Grala explained after the race. “I didn’t push the issue. I was conservative in the braking zones, wasn’t real aggressive on the restarts, just kind of hung around, made sure my Cup debut didn’t end prematurely and got comfortable out there…”
While he was simply getting comfortable in Stage 1, Grala had somehow worked his way into the top-25, and this was with a Chevrolet Camaro that was reportedly a little loose on throttle.
In order to make up ground on the field in Stage 2, Grala and crew chief Justin Alexander opted to pit before the end of Stage 1. As a result, Grala ended Stage 1 in 32nd, but he would start inside the top-25 on the start of Stage 2. Grala under the Stage break caution would tell his team on the radio, “I like this car. This is fun!”
The fun was just beginning.
Grala was beginning to really churn out some quick laps, and was even among the five fastest cars on track near the end of Stage 2. Grala and Alexander again opted to pit before the end of Stage 2 in an effort to set themselves up for better track position in the final Stage.
The No. 3 machine had worked into to 22nd, when lightning red flagged the race on lap 35. It was under this period that Grala was able to digest what he had learned on track and he feels this is where his debut turned from a good day into a great one.
“I hate to admit how much the lightning delay probably did help me kind of reset, refresh,” Grala explained. “These Cup cars are hot, they’re physical. Road courses are physical in general, and these races are long. It’s the real deal out there for sure, and you’re racing guys that are really, really good. From a mental and physical standpoint, you are really extending yourself as much as possible. But on top of that, it wasn’t my interior of the car. Austin is a couple inches shorter than I am so the pedals were too close to me. I couldn’t breathe all the way in in the seat because the ribs are a little bit tight. Just a couple details here and there that made the car — it was drivable, it was okay, but certainly all the little details weren’t where I would have them if it were a car fitted for me.
“That probably added to my fatigue, but certainly in that last stretch of the race after the lightning, I was running on pure adrenaline, so other than the cramping, like I talked about, I wasn’t really feeling any effects until cautions or after the race that it hit me how much I had drained myself in this race.”
As the red flag was lifted, a focused Grala was poised to press. And press he did.
Grala would move inside the top-15, and then as pit strategies began to play out, he would catapult through the field. As the No. 3 continued moving further up the scoring pylon, Grala would radio to his team, “This is badass!”
At lap 50, Grala would assume the lead during the pit sequence, and he would lead three laps before relinquishing the spot to hit pit road.
After the pit sequence cycled out, Grala was 15th, but a late race caution would help Grala and the No. 3 team snag even more valuable track position. Alexander called for Grala to stay on pit road, several cars in front of Grala decided to hit pit road. This put Grala inside the top-10 and ready to pounce.
“I knew I was going to have to be aggressive and kind of make holes where I could because I knew that there were only a few rows separating me and the guys on tires,” Grala said of the final restart. “Tires have been so big here today. I knew I had to hold position as best I could, when I could. I tried to be aggressive. A couple guys I think got together up ahead. I was able to get under a couple guys and move forward just a bit.
“It was definitely intense. I probably wouldn’t like to admit it, but on the last lap or two, my hands were cramping, my arms were cramping, my legs were cramping. These Cup races are no joke. They’re really long, and these guys are some pretty incredible athletes.”
By the end of a three-lap shootout, the No. 3 car was scored in seventh-place and Grala had authored one of the most impressive Cup Series debuts in recent memory. Grala was just grateful for the opportunity and he was glad he exceeded his own expectations.
“It certainly was an honor to get the call from Richard Childress and drive his iconic No. 3 American Ethanol Chevrolet,” Grala said after his impressive run. “I honestly had a blast. These Cup cars have so much power, which I really enjoyed. Today exceeded my expectations. My goal was to come in today, run all the laps, not tear anything up, and get a top-30 finish so this is certainly far above my wildest dreams.”
Obviously, there is hope that Austin Dillon, who will need to go through the COVID protocols that NASCAR has in place, can be healthy and return to the track for next week’s race. But if Dillon isn’t approved, has Grala earned himself a spot as the RCR backup driver?
“I don’t know about that,” Grala said. “I know that AJ Allmendinger is typically the backup driver for the Richard Childress Racing Cup program, but of course this weekend due to the rules he wouldn’t have been able to run today since he ran yesterday in the Xfinity Series. I don’t really know, I haven’t heard, but I certainly will pick up any call Richard has and do whatever he’d like. It was an amazing experience getting to run this weekend, but we certainly all hope that Austin is back in the car and competing again next weekend.”
Even if Grala is not the backup driver on call for next weekend, he certainly made the most of his unexpected NASCAR Cup Series debut, and who knows, he may have opened some eyes that will lead to bigger opportunities going forward.