With the first week of the NASCAR season in the books, let’s take a look at the winners from this past weekend and what the win might mean for them the rest of the season.
Kaz Grala – Winner of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Race
Grala is just two months removed from his 18th birthday, and he’s already eligible for the 2017 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series playoffs. He became the youngest driver in NASCAR national series history to win the pole at Daytona, and he’s also the youngest to win at Daytona.
After leading the first 13 laps, Grala got pushed back through the pack. However, he was able to avoid many of the wrecks throughout the night and was able to stay with his GMS teammates.
On the final restart of the race, Matt Crafton was able to take the lead from Johnny Sauter. However, a wreck on the final backstretch involving Crafton, Sauter and 10 other trucks allowed Grala, who used crafty maneuvering and help from his spotter, to emerge from the chaos and cross the finish line first.
“I couldn't really see much ahead of me, but I did see stuff start to go wrong,” said Grala in the post-race press conference. “And I knew I wasn't going to lift out of the throttle, so I just tugged the wheel left, crossed my fingers, closed my eyes a little bit, and I'm really glad it worked out. That was pretty hectic at the end. We had a little bit of luck, but we had a really fast [truck] for sure.”
While Grala will certainly look to win more races in his rookie campaign, he knows getting that first win is important. Grala is eligible for the playoffs and can solidify his spot by winning a second race. For the rest of the year, his focus is on fine-tuning his racing skills and truck to prepare for the playoffs.
“I'm just happy to start our season off like this, because this gives us a ton of momentum,” said Grala. “A ton of opportunity for myself to really learn on tracks I haven't been to, and for us to build up our program hopefully heading into the playoffs.”
His next lesson? Mile-and-a-half tracks.
“I've never been on a mile-and-a-half before, so next weekend is going to be my first time doing that.”
Grala races at Atlanta this weekend and will have a month off to prepare for Martinsville in April. Grala and the Truck Series will race in the Toyota Tundra 250 at Kansas Speedway on May 12.
Ryan Reed – Winner of the NASCAR XFINITY Series Race
Reed visited a familiar place on Saturday: Daytona’s Victory Lane. For the second time in three years, he won the season opener of the NASCAR XFINITY Series at Daytona International Speedway, proving that his first win wasn’t a fluke.
Reed has dealt with a lot of doubters in the past, as he overcame a diagnosis of Type I Diabetes six years ago and at the time, he was told he couldn’t be a race car driver anymore.
“I’ve had so many people come up and tell me how amazing my first win (Daytona) was,” said Reed in victory lane. “A lot of people know that I have Type 1 Diabetes and to see what (that) win meant to so many people drove me to get back to victory lane.”
Reed dealt with a lot of adversity in Saturday’s race, too. The race was full of multiple-car wrecks and included two red flags. Reed’s No. 16 car spun out twice in the infield grass during incidents.
“I started out pretty aggressive and made some mistakes and ended up at the back of the pack,” said Reed. “I knew if I was there at the end, I would have a shot. I reminded myself of that, took a deep breath and found a way to the front at the end.”
Reed, who made the XFINITY Series Playoffs last season, will use this win to further bolster his racing career. Despite not winning a race last year, he did have a career-best seven Top-10 finishes. The 23-year-old is already off to a great start in 2017.
Reed was one of four drivers from last year’s XFINITY Series playoffs field (12 drivers) to finish the race. Three of last year’s Championship Four were taken out in a wreck on Lap 28. Elliott Sadler, who won the race’s first two Stages and led a race-high 40 laps, was the last of the Championship Four to bow out of the race on Lap 106.
Brendan Gaughan finished fifth, the only driver besides Reed of the XFINITY Series regulars to finish in the Top Five. Gaughan followed up his great performance on Saturday with an 11th-place finish in the Daytona 500 the following day, his best finish in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series since he finished 10th at Kansas in 2004.
Kurt Busch – Winner of the Daytona 500
If there was anything missing from Kurt Busch’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career, it was a win in the Daytona 500.
He was able to check that off his list on Sunday, winning the 59th running of the Great American Race.
There were a handful of cars, five to be exact, that made it through the race without damage from an incident on the track. Kurt Busch’s car was not one of them.
“Daytona's always about survival,” said Busch. “As I gave Tony Gibson a high five before we started the race, I said, It's 90% protect the car, 10% go for aggression, race hard, and execute at the end. I'm thankful enough we didn't have too much damage. There's things that everybody has to go through to win this race. Usually there's not a perfect car anymore.”
As always, the win wasn’t just big for the driver, but the whole team. Gibson, Busch’s crew chief, drew attention for his celebration on the pit box following the checkered flag.
“It's insane,” said Gibson in the interview room. “I grew up five miles from here. My mom retired from here. My dad raced here all of his life. To come here -- and I've won the 500 before, but not as a crew chief. To come here and do this is amazing. I'm getting old, towards the end of my deal.”
Tony Stewart, a part owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, had never won the race as a driver. But in his first race following retirement, he was able to celebrate his first Daytona 500 win as a car owner.
“If I knew all I had to do was retire to get it done, I would have retired a long time ago,” said Stewart with a smile. “I couldn't be more proud to be up here with these three guys. To go back to when we joined with Gene (Haas) and his group, made it Stewart-Haas Racing and bringing Tony Gibson and his crew and then hiring Kurt, it's neat to say how this has all gelled, come about.”
Like the other winners at Daytona this past weekend, the win is huge for Busch. As a former Monster Energy Series champion, he understands what it takes to win it all. With the new format change’s focus on winning, Busch’s strategy remains the same: just keep winning.