(Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images) | Getty Images
DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 18: Kaz Grala, driver of the #26 Island Coastal Lager Toyota, waves to fans as he walks onstage during driver intros prior to the NASCAR Xfinity Series Beef. It's What's For Dinner. 300 at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2023 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Perseverance pays off for Kaz Grala in his first full-time season with Sam Hunt Racing

By Dustin Albino

Sometimes in life, a person can grind away for all their worth but never find the perfect opportunity. After not returning for a second Craftsman Truck Series season in 2018 with GMS Racing, it’s been an uphill battle for Kaz Grala. 

Seeing rides come and go, only to evaporate, Grala didn’t give up on his dreams of racing in NASCAR. In the years since, Grala was a simulator driver, hopped in the No. 3 Cup Series car at the inaugural Daytona road course event on 36 hours notice, qualified into the Daytona 500 for Kaulig Racing and raced for 12 different NASCAR teams in three different series. 

“Didn’t feel like doing something else but felt like maybe going to end up having to,” Grala recently told Jayski.com about whether he felt like racing was ever out of the question. “Always hoped that wouldn’t be the case. I always stayed confident in myself, but there are times when you start to wonder, ‘Is this all actually going to work out like I’ve been planning and hoping for it to.’ I don’t know that I would yet say officially yes, but for right now, yes.”

About a month prior to last November’s championship race at Phoenix, Grala knew he had secured a full-time gig for the 2023 Xfinity Series season with Sam Hunt Racing. Just over a month following the championship race, he was tabbed as the driver of the No. 26 Toyota. 

For years, whether competing for NASCAR Goliaths like Richard Childress Racing or small race teams like Young’s Motorsports, Grala had been chasing the almighty dollar. It came together at the right time – when SHR was looking to expand its program to multiple full-time entries. 

“I finally had all the sponsorship lined up that I had been waiting for six years,” Grala said. “The pieces fell into place and, at that point, it’s trying to put yourself in the best position with the best team and best manufacturer and find where you want to make your home. This seemed like a pretty easy decision. There’s the most potential for growth in the future with Toyota right now, in my opinion.”

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 17: Kaz Grala, driver of the #26 Island Coastal Lager Toyota, drives during practice for the NASCAR Xfinity Series Beef. It's What's For Dinner. 300 at Daytona International Speedway on February 17, 2023 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) | Getty Images
(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Having competed against his now car owner back in what was called the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, Grala knew Hunt fairly well. When Santino Ferrucci was making a splash into NASCAR for SHR, Grala helped Ferrucci acclimate to stock car racing with a FURY late model car with Hunt present. 

Behind the scenes, though, Grala was trying to remain relevant. For drivers, that’s a difficult task when you’re not able to frequently showcase your talent. Instead, he was staying prepared should an opportunity come his way. 

“Even though I was only racing four, five, six times per year, I was training fully as if I was racing full time because physically, it’s harder to run part time,” Grala noted. “For me, it was as if I was running full time, even though I wasn’t.”

In Grala’s part-time gigs, he had several impressive outings. He finished runner up in the first truck race at Circuit of The Americas, for the underfunded Young’s team. Last August, he finished fifth at Watkins Glen while competing for Big Machine Racing. Other races, however, were solid days for an underfunded team, like finishing 23rd at Las Vegas for Alpha Prime Racing. Either way, the 24-year-old felt he was doing just enough to stay on everyone’s radar.

The struggle of finding a consistent home in NASCAR had made Grala appreciate the sport even more. He’s learned valuable lessons and “how big of a deal it is that somebody at this level with this much money into it was trusting me with the steering wheel of their racecar.”

The opening half of the regular season hasn’t been exceptionally kind to Grala. The No. 26 team has a pair of top-10 finishes, including a fourth-place result at Richmond, Hunt’s home racetrack. But Grala also has three DNFs – all at pack-style tracks – which has dropped his average finishing position to 20.1. 

At a chunk of tracks, such as Darlington and Portland, it’s the first time Grala has competed at the venue. With just 20 minutes of practice, he’s only beginning to get a feel for those tracks when it’s time to qualify. Yet he placed ninth at Darlington and fought from going a lap down early in the race. 

“I feel like it’s gone well,” Allen Hart, crew chief of the No. 26 Toyota, said. “Everybody gets into this situation where you feel like you haven’t had the finishes that you wanted or achieved because you get wrecked or have an issue of some sort. I think overall the season is progressing well and running in the top 15 every week is our goal. It’s a very attainable goal for us.

CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA - MAY 26: Kaz Grala, driver of the #26 FDC Shellback Espresso Toyota, drives during practice for the NASCAR Xfinity Series Alsco Uniforms 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 26, 2023 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images) | Getty Images
(Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images) | Getty Images

“There have been a couple of races where he could have given up after the second stage and said, ‘This car is a piece of trash.’ Like Darlington, we were a lap down early in the race and came in and worked on it and fought our way back to the top 10 at the end of the race. That’s good for both of us to have that faith in each other that we’re going to get there and have a good day.”

Grala explained that there have been a number of races throughout the season where the No. 26 team showed speed, only for its day to get derailed. That can get discouraging quickly. 

“All of us just needed that confidence booster and reward for how hard everybody had worked,” Grala said of his top 10 runs, “because there were so many races that we had good speed and because of a loose wheel or something breaking, someone running into us, we wouldn’t get a good finish. It seemed to keep adding up.”

In order to be part of the playoffs, Grala is going to need to win in the second half of the regular season. In the driver’s standings, he ranks 18th in points, but 106 markers below the cutline. That allows for Hart to use strategy, even when the series has five road courses and two superspeedways – tracks that Grala feels are his best chance of winning – as part of those 13 races. 

“We unload every Saturday with that intention anyway, so that doesn’t necessarily change what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re still going to plan to win, just like we were and hopefully we do and can be a part of the playoffs.”

Big picture wise, Grala has already won in 2023, by just being in the seat weekly. This is already the most starts he’s made in one respective series since running 22 Xfinity Series events during the 2018 season. But Grala also knows how quickly everything can go away. 

“Life has changed a lot, significantly,” he said of 2023. “It can always go as quickly as it came. I wouldn’t say my life has changed, but it’s changed right now and I’m trying to keep it that way. I’m already looking at trying to figure out how to stay for next year and all that good Silly Season stuff.”