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Convincing call-up: Kaz Grala nets seventh for RCR in Cup Series debut

Pressed into duty as an emergency call-up, Kaz Grala had plenty of pinch-me moments in his NASCAR Cup Series debut.

The Saturday morning call to suit up, coming from NASCAR Hall of Famer and team owner Richard Childress. The fitting for the iconic No. 3 car at the racing epicenter of Daytona International Speedway. Looking in his mirror in pace laps and seeing the No. 48 of childhood hero Jimmie Johnson in the row behind him. The brief moment atop the scoring pylon in the final stage. Oh, and with no practice or qualifying beforehand.

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It all added up to a dream sequence for the 21-year-old Grala, who finished an impressive seventh in his first race in NASCAR’s big leagues in the series’ first event on the Daytona Road Course. The result came just a day after getting Childress’ message that he’d be the Sunday substitute for Austin Dillon, who missed the Daytona event after reporting a positive COVID-19 test Saturday morning.

“Well, as far as sinking in, I’ll have to get back with you on that maybe sometime midweek, but the last 24 hours a lot of things have moved very quickly,” said Grala, who has made just two Xfinity Series starts for RCR this season, including a fourth place last weekend at Road America — a finish, he said, probably made him a stronger pick as a fill-in option. “It’s certainly been overwhelming. But I did, as you said, took my time on the grid and on the pace laps to really soak it in and understand the gravity of that moment. 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.

“I personally drove the No. 3 car in Bandoleros, Legends Cars, late models. I took it even all the way up to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series because it was my dad’s number. 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, but I’m so grateful to Richard and everybody at Richard Childress Racing for believing in me and trusting me behind the wheel of one of their Cup cars because that’s their main business right there, so it was an honor to know that they trust me behind the wheel.”

Grala said he planned to ease into Sunday’s Go Bowling 235, adapting to the drivability of a Cup Series car and getting a feel for the adjusted pedals, which had fit the slightly shorter Dillon. He also dropped to the rear of the field from the car’s scheduled 10th-place starting spot because of the driver change.

By the end of the first stage, Grala had found some rhythm, telling the No. 3 crew over the team communications: “I like this car. This is fun!” By the final stage, he benefited from a longer-haul pit strategy cycle to head to the top of the board. Grala incredulously radioed his crew to ask if he was leading. He set the pace for three laps before making a scheduled pit stop.

Once the field lined up for a final restart with three laps to go, Grala lined up 13th. Fighting through muscle cramps in the late going, he jumped six spots to secure a solid top-10 result at the checkers.

Grala hopes Dillon will be able to return for next weekend’s Cup Series doubleheader at Dover International Speedway, but Grala was also unsure whether he’d be on call as the No. 3 Chevy’s potential backup. If nothing else, he proved a capable interim fix who far exceeded the modest top-30 goal he’d set for himself before Sunday’s debut.

“To be in their car with the No. 3 on the side was just crazy,” Grala said, “and to put it in the top 10, I’m really happy about that and hope that it gave Austin something to cheer for from home.”