Kaz Grala finished about 23 positions better than he could have hoped in his NASCAR Cup Series debut.
Substituting for Austin Dillon after a positive COVID-19 test, Grala earned a seventh-place finish in the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet on the Daytona road course. He kept the car in one piece and even led three laps during a cycle of green-flag pit stops.
“I was hoping for a top 30, so this is certainly far beyond my wildest dreams for this race,” said Grala. “I just wanted to complete the laps. Going into the race, I thought if I could complete all laps, I felt like I could get a top 30. That was what I was looking to do. So really, the mentality never changed throughout the race, I still wanted to complete all the laps, minimize mistakes, and I feel like we were able to do that.
“I felt like we just kind of checked all the boxes I was hoping to check, and that let us to a really good finish. Really proud of everybody on the team who was a part of it, and helped make that happen.”
Grala didn’t have much time to prepare for his debut. Childress informed him Saturday morning he was needed, which negated any simulator time in a Cup Series car. The 21-year-old does compete on a limited basis for the organization in the Xfinity Series, although he’s made two starts this season.
“It certainly was an honor to get the call from Richard to fill in in the 3 car today, and obviously, it was a joy to drive,” said Grala. “It was a lot of fun. Those Cup cars are a blast; there is so much power, which I really enjoyed. I was really happy to be able to have a good day and make everyone back at the shop, Richard and Austin, proud today.”
A lightning delay in the third stage helped Grala get refreshed and reset. Not used to the heat of the Cup cars and with road courses being so physically demanding, Grala was able to regroup. Plus, he wasn’t adequately fitted for Dillon’s seat, and that also affected his comfort level – the pedals were too close, the ribs too tight, and he was running on adrenaline at the end.
But Grala also used the time to look at SMT data and admitted he overlaid his laps with those of Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin and found where he could make gains. Crew chief Justin Alexander also put tires on the car after the delay, helping the team get track position.
“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, I didn’t push the issue, I was conservative in the braking zones, wasn’t real aggressive on the restart,” Grala said. “I just kind of hung around and made sure my Cup debut didn’t end prematurely and got comfortable out there. By Stage 2, I was working up to it, making a little bit of headway forward.”
On the final restart with three laps to go, Grala was able to be aggressive and make holds. Also, knowing drivers with fresher tires were around him, he wanted to hold his position inside the top 10.
“I enjoyed the race so much,” said Grala, “and I hope to someday get a shot again in this series.”