After a successful season in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Kaz Grala will move up to the NASCAR XFINITY Series with JGL Racing.
Popular Speed’s Ashley McCubbin recently caught up with the 18-year-old to get his thoughts on the year ahead, and this past season.
POPULAR SPEED: What are your thoughts on the opportunity for 2018?
KAZ GRALA: I’m really excited about it. I think being able to run 33 races for me will be huge. I look at this season in the trucks, running 23 races. We had 16 regular season races and I feel like I learned so much that those last seven playoff races, even though we got knocked out after the first three due to bad luck, I think we would’ve been strong contenders. That was after only 16 regular season races.
The XFINITY Series has 26 regular season races. So I feel like over that period of time, I’ll have ample amount of time to get comfortable, get a grip in those cars, (and) learn the tracks as a lot of the tracks in the playoffs are tracks that you go back to for a second time. I think it’s a big learning opportunity for me so in the second half of the season, like this year, I should be able to get aggressive and crank out results and see if we can be contenders in the playoffs.
PS: What are your goals and expectations?
KAZ: Well, I mean it’s the same as the goal that I set for myself going into this year in the trucks – which is a bit of steep one, but I was able to do it this year, so hopefully next year is the same. But, I want to make the playoffs. I think for those first 26 races, that’s going to be every driver’s goal in the series – to make the playoffs, so I think that’s a reasonable goal for me to set. It won’t be easy by any stretch, but I’m up for the challenge. I don’t think I’d be a racecar driver if I wasn’t looking for a challenge.
PS: What track are you most excited to get to?
KAZ: Well, the road courses are definitely a stretch that excite me. They all take place within a month of each other around August, so that’ll be an exciting time. I get to race at Watkins Glen, which is a place that I’ve raced at in K&N (Pro Series) and won a few sportscar races there. I love it. But then I get to go to some road courses that I’ve never raced on before – Road America, Mid-Ohio, and then the Charlotte roval. So a little bit of a new, with a bit of old, but all sounds fun to me.
PS: How would you grade your 2017 season?
KAZ: I would say at times it was an A+, but at times it was a C, so I’d average it to be a B or a B+. It was really up and down. We had a quite bit of bad luck. We had a bunch of races that we didn’t finish or didn’t finish well, just because of silly stuff in being in the wrong place at the wrong time or the two motor failures. We also had some incidents where we got caught up in someone’s else crash, so unfortunately that really hurt us in the points and ultimately at Talladega, that took me out of the playoffs. As far as when things were going right and no crazy unforeseeable thing happened, we had good speed. We were a strong top-five, at least top-10 contending truck every week. That was enough to make the playoffs, and be competitive in the playoffs. I think when it came playoff time, we were definitely a top-five truck.
I feel really good about my 2017 season. I learned a ton, and I think I’ll be able to take everything I learned all year long to the XFINITY Series and hopefully be able to start a little further along next year than this year. Because this year not only did I have to learn the trucks, but I had to learn all the tracks, too. Since I just turned 18 in December of last year, in previous seasons, I wasn’t old enough to run any track bigger than Gateway. So this was my first year really running the big tracks and next year, sure I’ll have to run the XFINITY cars, but at least most of the tracks that I’ve been too before and that style of racing I’ve gotten used to. It seems to me like it will be less of a learning curve next year than it was this year, but of course the competition level is also higher. It won’t be any easier by any stretch.
PS: Take us back to Daytona in February. What was it like for you scoring your first career win on the biggest stage?
KAZ: That was huge for me. I think, to be honest with you, that was a huge part that propelled me into being able to have this opportunity for 2018 and beyond in the XFINITY Series. So, I can’t thank GMS Racing enough for bringing me a fast truck to Daytona. We sat on the pole and of course, that’s a huge tribute to everybody at the shop and on the team that built that truck in the off-season because qualifying at a superspeedway is all about the truck, aero and the engine. So GMS Racing and Hendrick Motorsports knocked it out of the park there.
But we were able to survive the race, play our cards right, put the truck in the right place at the right time, and capitalize on that win. That allowed us to breathe easy the rest of the regular season knowing that we’d be in the playoffs. It sure would be nice to pull off the same thing next year. Wouldn’t that be great?
PS: NASCAR just got done the first year of stage racing. What are your reflections?
KAZ: I really like it. I like watching it. Of course, I was in the truck races, but I like watching it in the XFINITY and Cup races. I think it’s pretty exciting. It definitely ramps up the intensity of the races earlier, which is different from past years. But it doesn’t seem to be my forte so far, so we’ll see if I can get better at it next year.
I feel like there’s been very few races that I’ve finished all three stages in the top-10. I seem to either get one or two, but getting the third just doesn’t seem to work for me. so that’s something that I think I could improve at. We’ve seen the stage points make a huge impact on your points standings, and especially in the playoffs. So I think that’s something that I want to learn and get better at, but something that I need to so I can stay competitive.
PS: What are your plans for the off-season?
KAZ: I don’t have a whole lot of plans, actually. I’ll be heading back home to Massachusetts for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. But, as far as racing, I don’t have a whole lot. I’m hoping to be able to run the Rolex 24, which I have run the last two years. But I don’t have any confirmation yet as to whether I have a ride or not, so we’ll keep you posted.
The 2018 NASCAR XFINITY Series season kicks off with the PowerShares QQQ 300 at Daytona International Speedway on February 17.
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