This weekend’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Road America will mark Kaz Grala’s fifth and final start in the No. 21 Hot Scream Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing. In his first four starts, the Massachusetts native has three finishes of 14th and an 18th-place finish. This weekend, he hopes to go out on a high note and contend for the win on the 4.048-mile road course.
"The key is just minimizing mistakes and staying on the road. That was a mistake I made last year," Grala said of Road America. "We came back through the field and finished 11th, but I feel like we would have had a really good finish had that not happened."
Grala was running seventh in the final stage when he wheel-hopped the car, spun and got off track. He feels they would have been in a solid position to run to the end without that mistake, given those racing around him at the time finished inside the top five.
In preparation for this weekend’s race, Grala has spent numerous hours across numerous days in the simulator at both RCR and Chevrolet, while also studying as many race notes as possible.
Grala has the strength of a Road America-winning crew chief calling the shots atop the pit box. Justin Alexander took Michael McDowell to Victory Lane at Road America in 2016 and looks to repeat that success with the No. 21 Hot Scream Chevrolet team this weekend.
He believes the biggest advantage of having a strong notebook and race-winning crew chief will come during the weekend’s practice sessions.
"On a road course you have so many more corners than an oval to deal with and try to figure out how to set your car up for," he said. "As a driver, you have to get all you can out of every corner, so you have a lot on your plate to try and figure out – knowing the car and the setup should be good, historically it has been good and you shouldn’t have to worry about that – allows you to really focus on hitting your marks and learning the track at getting a good rhythm.
"If you can start the weekend out and have a smooth a weekend without any hiccups and you get in that rhythm, you’re going to be really good in the race," said Grala. "That’s the biggest thing, just knowing that we should unload with a really good baseline."
Grala should know something about working with good baselines and talented racers. When he first got into racing, Grala spent many years racing go-karts on road courses in the Northeast. Before joining RCR and the Xfinity Series, he competed in multiple road racing series such as IMSA, running the Rolex 24 at Daytona twice.
"I’ve got quite a bit of seat-time on road courses through those different series," he said. "To me, driving those cars is really how you learn how to drive on a road course because they have data.
"You’re sitting there with co-drivers like Spencer Pumpelly, Justin Marks, guys that really know what they’re doing on road courses. When you get to overlay your data, you can learn a lot," he said.
While the NASCAR drivers work on hustling the car around the track and tend to be more aggressive, Grala believes his road racing experience allows him to have a more finessed approach to racing each corner.
Making his final start of the season for RCR’s Xfinity Series organization, Grala has one goal in mind.
"A trophy would be nice. That’s what I’m shooting for," said Grala. "I feel really good about it. I think we’ll have a chance, I mean, RCR’s stats there are incredible."
He described his time with RCR this season as a huge learning experience.
"There are so many more tools that are available, even just at the shop, but especially at the racetrack, than I’ve ever had access to before," he said. "I’ve gotten to be a much better driver, a more well-rounded driver. Mentally and physically, I think I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been to race in my career.
"I have also learned that a part-time schedule is difficult. It’s hard to come in cold, be up to speed and perform right off the bat. With that said, I can’t stay that I have finished where I would have like to so far this year, but I do feel as if I have gained a lot as a driver."
Grala hopes that in his final start of the season, in a style of racing that he knows very well, he and the No. 21 team will be able to go out and content for RCR’s fourth Road America victory.