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NASCAR XFINITY Series

Grala Hopes to Capitalize on Opportunity With Sam Hunt Racing

(Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Kaz Grala will finally have something he’s missed since 2017: stability and a place to call home. Grala is joining Sam Hunt Racing for the full 2023 NASCAR Xfinity Series season, piloting the No. 26 Toyota Supra.

Certainly, there was doubt in Grala’s mind if he’d ever be a full-time driver again. But six years in the making, those dreams have been fulfilled.

“There were times where it felt like it was an impossible task,” Grala told The Podium Finish. “It’s definitely an accomplishment and makes it feel like the grind in the last few years has been worth it to make it here.”

The last time Grala competed full-time, he was an 18-year-old breaking into the sport. He won the 2017 Craftsman Truck Series season opener at Daytona with GMS Racing, but that was his high point. Grala struggled most of that season, at one point crashing in four straight races.

After a first-round exit from the Playoffs, he lost his ride. Grala struggled to find something stable. He made starts in all three series, trying to piece his career back together.

Grala signed a pair of five-race Xfinity deals with Richard Childress Racing in 2019 and 2020. That led to his spur-of-the-moment Cup Series debut at the Daytona International Speedway Road Course in 2020, when Austin Dillon tested positive for COVID-19. He finished seventh.

After doing the West Coast swing last year with Alpha Prime Racing, Big Machine Racing approached Grala. He signed on for Talladega Superspeedway and Dover Motor Speedway. Despite finishes of 29th and 24th, he got three more races with the team later in the season.

At Watkins Glen International, his final race with the team, Grala finally put everything together. He ran top 10 nearly all race long and walked away with a fifth-place finish.

That was an important race, Grala said.

“Weekends like that are not only important personally to me, but just as far as the media, the industry insiders, just to stay fresh and remind them like ‘hey, don’t forget that I can run up front, I do run up front,'” Grala said. “Sometimes when you’re in equipment that you’re trying to get a top 15, top 20, those days are no less difficult. In fact, sometimes those days are more difficult, but they’re a little quieter and easier to be under the radar.

“I feel like I’ve got enough experience at the national level now to be able to really go out and do what I know I can do. Flying under the radar is not super useful for me nowadays.”

Six years removed from GMS, Grala approaches this opportunity much differently. With more wisdom and more races under his belt, he’s more appreciative of the chance that Hunt is taking on him.

Hunt has fielded Xfinity Series entries since 2019. Grala, however, is his first full-time driver.

(Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

“Sam is the perfect team owner. I think he’s got a lot of potential for the future because he is so young,” Grala said of his 29-year-old boss. “He’s the perfect mix of being in the sport boots on the ground. He’s raced before, he’s been a team owner for years. He’s wrenched on the cars, he knows exactly what this sport takes.”

Grala will work with Allen Hart as his crew chief. Hart came over before the 2022 season from JR Motorsports to lead the No. 26 car and serve as the organization’s technical director.

Hart worked with 10 different drivers in his first season. He, too, will now have consistency with Grala. The duo first worked together in the season finale at Phoenix Raceway, where Grala signed a one-race deal. Grala finished 23rd after damage from a crash.

For the 2023 season, the Xfinity Series is making a major rule change with the rear skew of the cars. Grala said Hart will be crucial in navigating the effects of the change.

“Allen is a really sharp guy,” Grala said. “[The rule change] is going to affect all of the setups on the race cars. You’re going to have to reinvent your setups and start from scratch and figure things could. I feel like a guy like Allen with his engineering background is the perfect guy to be figuring those challenges out.”

Grala will also have Chris Lambert, longtime spotter for Denny Hamlin, as his spotter in 2023.

Grala hasn’t had deals done early into the off-season before like this one. It’s allowed him to start training and preparing as a welcomed addition to Toyota Racing Development, where he’ll have many resources at his disposal.

“As far as nutrition training, conditioning — I’m going to be ready to hit the track in February,” Grala said. “I’ll also get time on the simulator before the start of the season, which I usually don’t have the privilege of getting through manufacturers. That’s really exciting to me.

“Everything [TRD] brings to the table, I’m going to use to the fullest extent to make sure that I get everything out of the season that I can.”

It’s also allowed Grala to focus on the little things to enhance the No. 26 team.

From designing paint schemes to working with sponsors and coming up with press releases — it’s felt like a real off-season, he said.

“It’s given us time to work with our partners and get everything buttoned up,” Grala said. “We’re going to look more professional than I ever have getting to the track … Everything is going to look nice. It’s going to have 26s on the generator and on the toolbox.

“All the little things that don’t matter for racing — they don’t matter on the track, but they matter for the look and the professionalism of the team.”

(Photo: Michael Donohue | The Podium Finish)

The approach for 2023 is admittedly different. Grala will be points racing for the first time in years and will have a playoff berth to chase.

He knows how a win would change the course of his season — and even his career. But he’ll have to balance that mentality.

“If you lock into the Playoffs with a win, that changes your whole year,” Grala said. “I’m definitely going to have to be balancing the big picture versus small picture here in each race. And to me, that starts with Daytona. Everybody’s got a different theory on it, but I’ve had success at Daytona.

“I’m probably going to ride, let people get their off-season jitters out in the first two stages and then try to put myself up in the mix at the end of the race, see if we can go steal a win.”

Grala believes 2023 could be the start of his sustained success in NASCAR.

“I hope that this is the start of a streak of full-time seasons for me, and I’d love to do that all the way until I retire,” Grala said. “That starts with getting everything out of the season, making the most of this opportunity.

“There certainly won’t be anybody that’s going to outwork me on the track this season, that’s for sure.”

Nathan Solomon is a junior in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University. He serves as editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper, The Bona Venture, and as the sports director for the campus radio station, WSBU 88.3 FM. Solomon started his journalism career in 2018 when he began covering hometown Cornell basketball for IvyHoopsOnline. In 2019, Solomon joined Empire Sports Media to contribute baseball content, and he started covering NASCAR for the outlet in 2020. In 2021, he covered his first two NASCAR races with Empire Sports Media. Solomon joined TPF in September of 2021 and became managing editor in the spring of 2022. He is recognized as an NMPA journalist. You may reach out to Nathan anytime at NSolly02@Yahoo.com.

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