When most people see the No. 3 at Daytona International Speedway, their mind goes to NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt.
Kaz Grala is no exception.
“It’s unbelievable to be racing in the Cup Series under any circumstances, but to do it in the No. 3 car was just incredible,” Grala said Sunday after driving the No. 3 to a seventh-place finish on the Daytona road course in his Cup debut.
But that number has a different meaning to Grala.
“I personally drove the No. 3 car in bandoleros, Legend cars, late models, I took it even all the way up to the (ARCA Menards East), because it was my dad’s (Darius Grala) number (in sports cars),” Grala said. “So the No. 3 has held a really special place in my heart for my whole career. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought my Cup debut would come in it.”
Grala, who competes part-time for RCR in the Xfinity Series, was called by Richard Childress Racing to drive the No. 3 Saturday morning after it was announced that Austin Dillon had tested positive for COVID-19.
AJ Allmendinger, Dillon’s usual backup driver, was unavailable after competing in Saturday’s Xfinity race. NASCAR had a rule banning drivers from competing in more than one race on the road course this weekend.
Due to the driver change, Grala had to start from the rear of the field Sunday.
During the pace laps, Grala experienced a surreal moment connected to another seven-time Cup champion.
“For me growing up my favorite driver and idol had always been Jimmie Johnson,” Grala said. “I really became a NASCAR fan in the midst of his five championships in a row. So I’ve always looked up to him. I thought coming into this year, I’d never get a chance to race against him before he retired. So already going into this race, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world just to know that he’d be on the track at the same time as me.”
As he navigated the 14-turn course prior to the green flag, Grala looked in his rearview mirror and saw Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet behind him.
“That was the coolest thing ever,” Grala said. “Of course it was bittersweet because I knew we had to drop to the back end. I didn’t think we’d be back up there at any point in the race. I thought it was a long shot. … Still didn’t beat Jimmie. I wish. That would have been really cool, but I could see him. That’s great enough.”
If all that wasn’t enough for a Cup Series debut, near the end of the race Grala was able to lead the field.
Thanks to strategy, Grala was the last driver to visit the pits during the last stage’s cycle of pit stops, resulting in him leading from Laps 50-52 before giving it up to eventual race winner Chase Elliott.
“That was pretty cool to get to lead some laps in my first Cup race,” Grala said. “I wouldn’t have thought that would be the case. But it definitely was a lot of fun. … (Crew chief) Justin Alexander called an excellent strategy. … To put ourselves in position for most of the day to try to be on as good or better tires than the guys around us, was a really good thing and helped me from getting shoved around too much.”
Grala is no stranger to special career moments taking place at Daytona International Speedway.
Three years ago, he won the Truck Series season opener at Daytona thanks in part to a large crash on the last lap. It remains his only victory in a national NASCAR series.
“Daytona is Daytona, so that that’s always going to be really special,” Grala said. “But I gotta say from an actual career perspective, I think this was a bigger day for me. Obviously, there were some circumstances that helped me win that Daytona Truck race, but today we really were able to drive up there into the top 10 and finish seventh, which I never would have imagined. It’s crazy to even be saying. But to me, I think that proved more a point than anything has previously my career. And like I said, I enjoyed the race so much and I hope to someday get to shot again in this series.”
Kaz Grala: The No. 3 has ‘special place in my heart’ originally appeared on NBCSports.com