NASCAR Cup Series

Former Westborough resident Kaz Grala talks about his hero, Jimmie Johnson, and Celtics

Former Westborough resident Kaz Grala talks about his hero, Jimmie Johnson, and Celtics

The youngest. Always the youngest.

The smartest? That, too.

Attendance: not something Kaz Grala sped to achieve. His racing career blocked the path.

At Armstrong Elementary School, not far from Route 135 and downtown Westborough, Grala’s marks as a fifth-grader ranked near the top of the class. But travel to weekend races – mostly in the Southeast – kept him away from school enough to raise the ire of administrators.

“Until which point I had missed enough days for racing, the principal had to tell us that legally they would have to make me repeat the grade if I missed any more days,” Grala, 25, said with a laugh in a phone interview Monday with the Daily News.

Kaz Grala has five top 20 finishes this year, his first in the NASCAR Cup series.

He enrolled at Worcester Academy, which allowed him to submit schoolwork online and complete homework assignments on the road via laptop. His grades did not suffer: Graza made the Headmaster’s List and scored a perfect 800 on the math portion of the SAT.

While living in Westborough (he graduated from Worcester Academy in 2017 before moving to North Carolina), Grala participated in many sports: swimming, tennis, Little League, soccer – and go-karting.

His transition to short-track racing at age 9 shot him to the front of the pack immediately, winning rookie-season championships at the Bandoleros (typically for 8–14-year-olds) and Legend (age 10 and up) levels. He won his first starts racing late model stocks cars at 14 and super late models at 16.

From 2012: Westborough's speed racer

“It sounds crazy some of the ages I did these things at,” Grala said. “I was driving a full-sized race car with a manual transmission going 140 miles an hour when I was 13 years old. Honestly, what I did in a race car all happened before holding a Massachusetts driver’s license – it does seem crazy. But everyone gets into it so young. That was not out of line with some of my peers.”

Leaving those peers in his wake, he became the youngest winner (18 years, 1 month, 26 days) in the history of Daytona Speedway (as part of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series) and the youngest to reach the NASCAR playoffs (that same year).

Grala is a rookie again, competing for Rick Ware Racing in the No. 15 Mustang at NASCAR’s highest level: the Cup Series. He will race on Sunday at the Series’ only New England Stop, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, in the USA Today 301. (USA Network, 2:30 p.m.).

“For me, it truly is my home race,” said Grala, one of just three racers in the field from New England along with Connecticut’s Joey Logano and Ryan Preece. “It’s going to be fun to race in front of the New England crowd.”

Kaz Grala, who grew up in Westborough, started winning season championships at age 9 in the Bandoleros division.

Racing against his hero, Jimmie Johnson

Grala inherited the racing bug from his father, Darius, a native of Poland who raced in the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2003, not long after Kaz took up go-karting at age 4. The youngster’s favorite driver was Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR Cup champion.

“I grew up watching NASCAR in the era when he won absolutely everything,” Grala said. “He was absolutely unbeatable for years.”

Johnson’s final season as a full-time driver, in 2020, coincided with Grala’s Cup debut. Austin Dillon had tested positive for COVID-19 and Richard Childress Racing tabbed Grala to run the No. 3 car made famous by Dale Earnhardt.

More: Boston's Kaz Grala Impresses in His Unexpected Cup Debut at Daytona

With just 24 hours' notice, Grala finished seventh, becoming the first Cup driver since Carl Edwards in 2004 to debut in the top 10. Johnson placed fourth.

“I could see him right in front of me, which was very, very cool,” Grala recalled.

Johnson still occasionally races and is 36th in the Cup standings, one place behind Grala.

“We’ve found ourselves racing each other quite a bit. I don’t know why that is, but we’ve found each other on tracks,” Grala said. “I’ve spent a good amount of time this year battling with Jimmie. I’m sure my younger self would have loved that.”

Grala missed out on Westboro Speedway, rooted on Celtics

Grala, who was born in Boston, said moving to the Central Mass. town that was once the home of Westboro Speedway for nearly 40 years was a coincidence. The track closed in 1985, 13 years before Grala's birth, and is the site of RK Speedway Plaza along Route 9.

“I heard people loved it,” Grala said. “I guess racing shopping carts down the aisles at Stop & Shop is the closest thing you can get now.”

Stop & Shop closed its Speedway Plaza location three years ago.

Kaz Grala calls Rick Ware Racing “the biggest underdog team in this series. We’re trying to punch above our weight.”

But Grala has not missed out on Boston's place at the top of the sports world this century. He said he has attended many Red Sox and Patriots games and was a fan of the Boston Blazers indoor lacrosse team that played its games at TD Garden more than a decade ago.

During Monday's interview, which happened a few hours before the Celtics won their record 18th NBA championship at the Garden, Grala said, "I'll be watching to see if they're able to close it out. That would be a big deal heading into the local NASCAR weekend. That would be a great lead-in."

Grala's goals include top 10 finish, long racing career

When asked if this week was different compared to the rest of the season – with increased media attention, ticket requests and texts from well-wishers – Grala responded, chuckling, “yes to all of that.”

He has raced at New Hampshire Motor Speedway three times, including last year’s Xfinity Series race, where he placed 13th.

“This weekend, I will have a larger cheering section than usual,” he said. “I'm hoping to have a good weekend this weekend probably more than any other.”

The rookie, with all his previous accolades from smaller circuits, has something to prove. He calls Rick Ware Racing the “biggest underdog team in this series. We’re trying to punch above our weight, if you will.”

Grala has five top-20 finishes this season with a high of 11th at the NASCAR All-Star Open on May 19. He is aiming for a top 10 this year and the ability to “run near the front” on a consistent basis.

“Those are lofty goals, but we’ve come close and I feel like we’re on the path of getting there. That’s the goal: is to just try to keep impressing, and if you do that, then you’ll be around for a long time. And that is the ultimate goal – being a competitor in the Cup Series for a career.”

Tim Dumas is a multimedia journalist for the Daily News. He can be reached at tdumas@wickedlocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @TimDumas.  

This article originally appeared on MetroWest Daily News: Former Westborough resident Grala calls USA Today 301 'my hometown race'

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