Kaz Grala finished seventh in his NASCAR Cup Series debut last weekend. Was it a fluke, or has Grala been severely underrated?
Jesse Johnston: Do I believe it was a fluke? Absolutely. As historic as that feat was, I am not convinced that any of Kaz Grala‘s good results at Daytona International Speedway — both the speedway and the road course — haven’t come from wearing golden horseshoes. His 2017 win in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series relied on nothing else but luck, taking the white flag in seventh and somehow not getting involved in the final-lap Big One to win. Same goes with his Xfinity Series debut in 2018, having somehow escaped the Big One and stealing a fourth-place finish out of nowhere. The finish he scored last weekend was the worst of any NASCAR race he’s been in at Daytona. Yes, his team may have had a good strategy plan, but many of the top competitors around Grala had faltering cars or were involved in incidents during the course of the race. The saying usually goes, “rather be lucky than good.” Grala definitely has an unnatural amount of luck, but he has a ways to go to convince me that he has the good part of it down.
Jared Haas: Grala is an underrated prospect. While he does not show off by trying to lead every single lap, he finishes well. Grala has led a total of 51 laps in the top three series and has 22 top 10s in 62 NASCAR starts. He may have lucked himself into a win in 2017 at Daytona, but you have to be in a position to luck yourself into a win. In his only full-time season in the Truck Series, Grala had some growing pains with seven DNFs, yet he finished seventh in points. He has a bright future in front of him; even though he has been in the sport for four years, he is only 21 years old. Does he deserve a Cup ride right now? No. Should he be on some teams’ radar? Yes.
Christian Koelle: Underrated is an understatement. Grala has been one heck of a driver in Xfinity, including his stint with Fury Race Cars a few years ago. Grala’s back was against the wall and he almost earned a victory with that car before funding ran thin. He’s never really had the chance to show his worth but did manage to show strong runs with GMS Racing in the Truck Series. Grala is one of the most underrated drivers in NASCAR today, alongside Daniel Hemric, Anthony Alfredo and others.
Adam Cheek: That finish wasn’t a surprise to me at all. Remember the Truck Series race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in 2017? Grala was leading on the last lap before contact sent him sliding. That prowess on road courses certainly doesn’t always translate, but provided that run three years ago, I wasn’t too shocked by his debut. At the same time, it’s NASCAR’s premier level, so it was also incredibly impressive, especially given that it’s a track on which few NASCAR drivers had run before. He got the one win at Daytona in 2017 as well, so he’s definitely shown talent. Definitely underrated.
Bubba Wallace says he hasn’t made a decision about where he will race in 2021. Which team do you see Wallace driving for next year?
Haas: Richard Petty Motorsports. Bubba Wallace needs to ask himself this question: Would he find himself more successful as an owner or a driver? A change of scenery may be good for driver Wallace, but Wallace as an owner could be better. He could take over RPM and run the operations, as he has a stake already with the team, grow RPM into a bigger organization. In the last few months, Wallace has brought multiple sponsors to the team with multi-year deals, which is a dream to some teams. If Wallace thinks about the big picture, he could be around the garage a lot longer and be more successful as an owner than a driver.
Koelle: I think he’ll land at Chip Ganassi Racing because of his relationship with McDonald’s, but then again, Ganassi loves winners, and Wallace hasn’t won since 2017.
Cheek: I could absolutely see Wallace making the move to CGR especially with the recent influx of sponsors (Columbia and DoorDash just this week) for Wallace and his relationship with McDonald’s. Of course, CGR won’t touch Kyle Larson at this juncture, and Erik Jones could be a possibility as well, but Wallace already has the sponsors and Chevrolet connection, as well as a fanbase that has grown even bigger in recent months. Additionally, his performance this year has continued to be solid (he was in the top 10 in the waning laps of the Daytona road race), so I could see him behind the wheel of the No. 42 in 2021.
Johnston: If I were Wallace, I would find any other place to race besides RPM. The team has been on a downward spiral ever since it lost Aric Almirola and switched to Chevrolet. Almirola gave the No. 43 team 30 top-10 finishes, one win and one playoff appearance in 2014, plus four finishes inside the top 20 in points. The numbers that Wallace has put up in that car have been embarrassingly lower than Almirola’s — just eight top 10s and two consecutive finishes of 28th in points. And Richard Petty isn’t getting any younger. If Wallace gets chosen to drive for a team like CGR, Stewart-Haas Racing or Hendrick Motorsports, there’s no telling how high he could go. It all lay in his open-mindedness to other opportunities that may arise across all three national series. And the windows are slowly closing on them.
NBC rushed off the air right after the NASCAR race concluded due to contractual obligations with NHL and a commitment to news. What did you think of the switch to NBCsports.com, and did the network handle the situation appropriately?
Koelle: How many years has NASCAR been on NBC? How many times has this happened and yet we’re still here talking about dumb mistakes? Fast forward to this weekend’s Indianapolis 500. If it runs late, will NBC cut off as the driver passes the finish line, since NASCAR is on NBC Sports Network? It’s like NBC stomped its foot saying, “we’re showing the local news and you’re going to like it.” Sports are meant to be a distraction from the real world, right? I understand news is important, but what if someone had thrown a punch? It’d have been incredibly hard to see it with lack of media on the ground. In a time where media is limited at the track and NBC or FOX is the only way we can see this stuff, this is absolutely uncalled for.
Johnston: It wasn’t the first time we’ve seen a glitch-y phenomenon like this occur. I clearly remember not being able to see the first 20 laps of the 2013 Lucas Oil 150 from Phoenix Raceway due to a college basketball game going into overtime. Or when Fox Sports 1 had its broadcast cut off right before the hectic final restart of the 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame 200 at Martinsville Speedway. Nobody can stop the weather or how long it may delay an event. The network switch by NBC was the best it could do in that situation. It’s unfortunate for those who may not have Internet access and couldn’t see the race. But thankfully, there are radio outlets like MRN and PRN that provide a way to follow along with the race even though we may not see it. At least NBC stuck around to the very conclusion of the race. And we can only hope that NASCAR and any involved TV networks continue to be more concrete on figuring out alternative solutions should something go haywire.
Cheek: I totally understand on some level. NHL playoffs are the biggest thing happening right now, and it’s some of the best sports entertainment we’ve had since the pandemic (hockey playoffs are some of the best in general, too). However, the experience of seeing Chase Elliott and the rest of the top 10-or-so cross the line, followed a small, awkward silence and then an immediate cut to local news, was surreal. There’s quite a few ways it could’ve done it better; a quick segway from Rick Allen, a small graphic or a five-minute cut into the following programming would’ve sufficed nicely. My attention quickly turned to the Blackhawks game, but NBC could’ve handled it so much better. At the same time, it seemed only fitting to close out a weekend that had already been lacking coverage-wise.
Was it the right decision to still run the Indianapolis 500 without fans? And who’s your Indy winner?
Cheek: Yes, absolutely. Is it the same without fans? No. However, COVID-19 is still such a huge risk, and I expect the second wave to hit just as hard as the first, whenever it does happen. So far, NASCAR has done better than I expected, and no huge outbreaks have occurred in the areas where fan-permitted races were held, but it’s still taking a huge chance anytime fans are allowed at sporting events. The Indy 500 is one of racing’s biggest events capacity-wise, and the risk of a possible outbreak – or spreading of the virus in general – is exponentially higher. Roger Penske said at first he wouldn’t run the 500 if fans weren’t allowed, but I’m glad he went back on his promise; we still get the race without the COVID threat (aside from drivers, crew and personnel, of course). I’m not happy about the situation, either; I haven’t been to cover a race in person since last fall, and the waiting is incredibly hard. But it’s what we have to do to keep this under control. Also, my Indy 500 pick is Alexander Rossi. He came so close last year in an instant classic of a 500, and he’s hungry for another one. Scott Dixon‘s dominance this season will show at the Indiana oval as well, but Rossi’s calculated aggression will get the job done.
Johnston: Having the 500 being run without fans is a despicable decision. This is coming from a person who races go-karts on a bi-weekly basis on packed speedway grounds and who also attended the NASCAR All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway in July. All fans who attended the event safely followed proper protocol and guidelines set by the speedway, and there were zero positive COVID-19 cases that came from the event. If races can be held in Tennessee with no major issues, so can Indiana and IMS. By removing the fans out of the equation, not only will the NTT IndyCar Series and the speedway suffer major losses in revenue, but it will also cause a sense of distrust among fans with those who make these unfortunate decisions. It’s an unfortunate ordeal all around, and we can argue all day long about the politics that played into the decision. But if NASCAR can allow its stands to be occupied with no positive viral contractions, IndyCar can absolutely do the same. The Greatest Spectacle in Racing would not be complete without some sort of fan presence at IMS. The post-race celebrations will be as lifeless as we will ever recall. My pick’s Rossi.
Koelle: There will be fans there; they’ll be sitting on the outside. It’s the track’s loss, sadly. I understand 110% that it is for the sake of the fans in the grandstands, but when the fans still show up and sit outside the track, the only difference is because of liability, but when the checkered flag flies, these fans are still there cheering on a sport they love. It’s a slap in the face to say that they can’t come inside and watch. Dixon will become a two-time winner of the 500.