Friday 5: Search for NASCAR sponsors, rides intensifies as season nears

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For the past three seasons, lack of sponsorship limited Kaz Grala to only occasional NASCAR starts. By the time Christmas arrived last month, Grala had engaged in numerous conversations with sponsors and teams, but he had no Cup, Xfinity or Camping World Truck Series races “set in stone” on his schedule.

After a flurry of calls and correspondences this month, the 23-year-old could run more races in NASCAR this year than the 15 he raced the past two seasons combined. Announcements are likely later this month.

“It’s never ideal to be trying to put your season together in January, certainly not February,” Grala told NBC Sports. “You’re in big trouble if it comes down to (February). That’s been the position I’ve been in the last few years. Unfortunately, I’m used to it at this point.”

While fans count the days to the start of the NASCAR season next month, Grala, Garrett Smithley and many other drivers furiously seek to complete deals with sponsors and teams. It can turn January into an anxiety-inducing month of promises and pitfalls for competitors trying to secure as many races as possible this year.

“I hope one day … I’m secure in my rides and I’m secure in my sponsorship where I can focus on the racing part, and I still do,” Smithley told NBC Sports. “I still watch film. I still get on the simulator. I still do all those things. But, all of my spare time, as far as working on sponsorship, is geared toward trying to go racing. 

“The dessert for me is lining up Sunday and running 400 or 500 miles. All of that can’t happen unless the hours and hours and hours and days and weeks and months and years spent garnering these (sponsor and team) relationships.”

NASCAR Cup Series Championship - Qualifying
Garrett Smithley. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

It’s a lesson the 29-year-old Smithley learned more than a decade ago. When he was 18, Smithley had the chance to run a Legends car race at Hickory (North Carolina) Motor Speedway, but he was about $300 short of what the team needed for the event. 

Smithley sought sponsorship to cover the shortfall. He went to Google Maps, expanded the map beyond the speedway and “just kind of went down the road and just called every company that was in that vicinity.”

Ten calls led nowhere. 

Twenty calls turned up nothing. 

Thirty calls went for naught. 

Forty calls proved fruitless. 

As he approached 50 calls, Smithley found an auto parts business that would provide store credit. That was enough for him to get the ride.

Smithley admits he has to be a salesman along with being a driver. It’s his job to sell sponsors and teams on his ability and what he can do for both.

Grala can relate to Smithley’s persistence after receiving so many rejections. That’s the way sales, in general, can be – more nos than yeses.

“Gosh, for every 100 (proposals) I would send, I would say that I’m lucky if I get 10-20 responses, period,” Grala said. “I sure get a whole lot more nos than yeses. I don’t take that personally.”

The rejections, though, can be deflating. 

“Monday, I spent probably the later half of the day working on an email, putting together a proposal for a company, a very large national company whose CEO I reached out to and I have corresponded with before, so I knew he would see it,” Grala said.

“I put together what I thought was a really, really great opportunity. I got a response seven minutes later with just the words ‘we’re not interested.’

“You have moments like that that are frustrating, but at the same time, it doesn’t take but one ‘yes’ to all of a sudden have a great season. Who knows? Maybe have a great career. You never know. It’s always worth putting out that (large) net to try to get them.”

NASCAR Xfinity Series Henry 180
Kaz Grala, competing in the Xfinity race at Road America last season, has run 15 NASCAR races the past two seasons because of limited sponsorship. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

For Grala, the last few years have been lean. After running 22 Xfinity races in 2018, he has run 20 NASCAR races since (12 Xfinity races, four Cup races and four Truck races). For perspective, more than 85 drivers ran 20 or more NASCAR races in any of the three national series last year.

Had it not been for finding sponsorship before the 2020 season, Grala might not even be in the sport now. 

In 2019, he had a five-race Xfinity deal with Richard Childress Racing. Grala finished no better than 14th in the first four races in that ride.

“When I first started my part-time schedule, it was really difficult for me,” Grala said. “You do put that pressure on yourself. You get into the race car, and let’s say you’re running ninth in an Xfinity race. Maybe you have a ninth-place car that day, but if you’re feeling like ‘I can’t finish ninth, I get one race every three months to prove myself, I’ve got to make something happen,’ that’s when you make mistakes. 

“My first year at RCR, I made those mistakes in four of the five races I did with them.”

Grala finished fifth at Road America in his final Xfinity start with the team that year. It was enough for Richard Childress Racing to want him back in 2020 for select events — provided he could bring sponsorship.

When he wasn’t racing in 2019, Grala spent time coaching Truck series driver Natalie Decker. One of her sponsors, Ruedebusch, was introduced to Grala and provided the funding so he could run five Xfinity races in 2020 with RCR. 

Grala said that deal “jump-started” his career.

He had run two Xfinity races in 2020 when Austin Dillon tested positive for COVID-19 and missed the Daytona road course race late in the regular season. Grala filled in for Dillon. It was Grala’s first Cup start. He finished seventh.

“If I didn’t go back to RCR for those (Xfinity) races (in 2020), I would have never ended up in that 3 car to fill in for Austin,” Grala said. “I feel that was absolutely the point that I could turn to in my career and say, ‘This is where things changed.’”

His Cup performance at the Daytona road course gained attention and set him up to run three Cup races in 2021 for Kaulig Racing. He finished sixth in the spring Talladega race. 

Even with the ability, it still takes money to get rides. That’s why Grala makes calls, sends proposals and brokers deals to get more races and, someday, a full-time ride. 

While he has help in finding sponsorship from Team Dillon Management, Grala does as much work as he can on his own.

“My dad taught me very young, ‘No one is going to care more about your career than you are. Ever,’” Grala said. “I take that to heart. I love working with (Team Dillon Management and Business Director Austin Craven). They are a huge help to me, and I can’t do everything I do without working with them side-by-side as a team, but I like to stay involved. I like to be in direct contact with teams, potential sponsors.

“I’m in the loop in everything. I’m sending emails to companies that I’m prospecting. … At the end of the day that makes successes and failures on me, which I think it should be, being my career. I take responsibility on that end.” 

Smithley also does a lot of his own sponsorship searches but is guided by Spire Sports + Entertainment’s Phillip Smalley, who has been a motorsports management marketing and consulting professional since 2014. 

“Let’s just say I get the relationship and he (Smalley) helps me keep them, and he helps me build them and he helps me garner those relationships,” Smithley said.

NASCAR Cup Series Go Bowling at The Glen
Garrett Smithley in a Cup car at Watkins Glen last year. He ran 27 Cup races in 2021. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

It’s still not easy to find all the funding necessarily.

“I wish it was a little bit easier,” Smithley said. “I wish it was a little bit less stressful sometimes.”

Even so, Smithley has found enough sponsors and money for steady rides in recent years. He looks to have announcements later this month on what he’ll be doing this season. 

While Grala has run 16 Cup or Xfinity races the past three seasons, Smithley has run 109 Cup or Xfinity races during the same time. 

Grala knows he’s fallen behind a number of drivers in experience with his limited amount of races. That makes this a critical time in his career. He needs to find as much sponsorship as he can so he can run as many races as possible.

“I feel like I’m getting to that age where within the next two or three years it’s kind of when it seems to be drivers make it to Cup if they’re going to make it to Cup,” Grala said. “When I say make it to Cup, I mean full-time in a chartered car.

“We’re getting down to where I would like to be in this timeframe, so each year is getting more important. Each year, so far, has seemed to get better for me in terms of opportunities. I feel like if I keep working like I have been, keep putting in the preparation for the on-track product so I can go perform well there, I’m hoping that things will fall where they’re supposed to.

“My dream has been to be a Cup driver since I was probably single-digits years old. It’s almost like the closer you get, the more frustrating because you can taste it. You’re so close, but yet, it’s always so far because it’s never easy.

“I’m hoping that over the next couple of years I can position myself to be out there every Sunday.”

The more he gets done this month, the closer he can get to that goal.

2. Will teams have enough cars at start of season?

Among the key questions this offseason is how many cars will teams have to start the season.

Changes to the Next Gen car late in the development, combined with supply issues related to COVID-19 mean that organizations are not expected to have the maximum seven cars per team at the start of the season. 

With the potential for crashes at Daytona and then a three-week West Coast swing, there are some worries about teams managing their cars through the first few weeks of the season. 

“We are concerned, for sure,” said Jerry Freeze, general manager at Front Row Motorsports. “We’ve got two cars that you could take to the race track tomorrow and a third one that is on its way of being assembled. That’s about it for us right now. 

“The chassis parts are becoming more readily available, but some other things, I feel like, are behind a little bit. Hopefully, we will have more inventory. … It’s definitely different from the days where you’ve got 30 race cars in the shop.”

That’s part of the reason for the switch to the Next Gen car. It is designed so the car can be run on various types of tracks instead of having cars for each individual track type. That is supposed to help teams save money over the long term. 

Walt Czarnecki, vice chairman at Team Penske, is not as worried about the number of cars for the organization. He said this week that Mike Nelson, the team’s vice president of operations, told him that they are in “reasonably good shape as we get into this first phase of the season.”

John Probst, NASCAR senior vice president of racing innovation, addressed where things are likely to be at the start of the year for teams.

“We’re still on track for five cars per team … and that’s five center sections and seven front and rear clips, so it’s kind of like five plus a little bit,” he said this week at the Daytona organizational test. 

“I think that we’re not immune to the world. We’re seeing COVID and supply chains being delayed and some of the distribution being delayed a little bit. I’d say that right now we don’t see any parts or pieces that are going to keep any car from racing in an event.”

All 36 charter teams will compete Feb. 6 at the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Teams then are back on track Feb. 15 in practice for the Feb. 20 Daytona 500.

3. Ryan Newman’s future

Ryan Newman will compete today at the Chili Bowl Nationals, but he said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he does not have any type of NASCAR ride for this season.

Newman completed his 20th full-time Cup season last year. The 2002 Cup Rookie of the Year won 18 Cup races, including the 2008 Daytona 500. He finished in the top 10 in points seven times, including a runner-up result in 2014.

He spoke about his future on “Dialed In” with Claire B. Lang this week.

“Definitely interested in continuing to race,” Newman said. “That’s why there was no retirement party. There were no retirement plans. There was no ‘Ryan’s last ride’ or anything like that because that wasn’t the intention.”

He said he has plans to do some “short track grassroots racing” this year. Other than that, he has no other racing plans at this time. 

4. Team Penske’s Xfinity program 

Team Penske, which has fielded a full-time entry in the Xfinity Series since 2009, does not have any races scheduled in the series this season, said Walt Czarnecki, vice chairman of Team Penske.

Czarnecki said that could change if sponsorship came along for any of those events. 

The team’s Xfinity program has won two driver titles and four owner crowns.

Brad Keselowski gave Team Penske its first NASCAR championship when he won the 2010 Xfinity driver’s title. 

The organization won consecutive owner titles from 2013-15. Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and AJ Allmendinger each won for the team in 2013. Keselowski and Blaney won races for the team in 2014. Keselowski, Blaney and Logano won in the car in 2015. 

Team Penske won the 2017 owner’s title behind wins by Keselowski, Blaney, Logano and Sam Hornish Jr. 

Austin Cindric won the 2020 Xfinity driver crown.

5. Familiar place

Christopher Bell earned his record-tying eighth preliminary night victory Thursday night at the Chili Bowl Nationals. 

The top two finishers in each of the preliminary night feature races Monday-Friday earn a starting spot in Saturday night’s main event. 

Bell, a three-time Chili Bowl champion, will be joined in Saturday’s feature race by reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson, who has won the past two Chili Bowls. 

Talladega Xfinity results: AJ Allmendinger edges Sam Mayer

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AJ Allmendinger, who had had several close calls in Xfinity Series superspeedway races, finally broke through to Victory Lane Saturday, edging Sam Mayer to win at Talladega Superspeedway.

Allmendinger’s margin of victory was .015 of a second. Mayer finished second by a few feet.

Following in the top five were Landon Cassill (Allmendinger’s Kaulig Racing teammate and his drafting partner at the end), Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson, who had won four straight Xfinity races entering Saturday, was 10th. Austin Hill dominated the race but finished 14th.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

AJ Allmendinger wins Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

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Veteran driver AJ Allmendinger slipped past youngster Sam Mayer in the final seconds and won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

As drivers in the lead pack scrambled for position approaching the finish line, Allmendinger moved to the outside and, getting a push from Kaulig Racing teammate Landon Cassill, edged Mayer by a few feet. The win ended frustration for Allmendinger on superspeedways.

Following Allmendinger, 40, at the finish were Mayer (who is 19 years old), Cassill, Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson and Allmendinger have qualified for the next playoff round. The other six drivers above the cutline are Ty Gibbs, Austin Hill, Josh Berry, Justin Allgaier, Mayer and Sieg. Below the cutline are Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones, Riley Herbst and Jeremy Clements.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

“This is Talladega,” a wildly happy Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “Yes, I hate superspeedway racing, but it’s awesome to win in front of the Talladega crowd.”

Austin Hill dominated the race but dropped out of the lead to 14th place  in the closing five laps as drivers moved up and down the track in search of the best drafting line.

The first half of the race featured two and sometimes three drafting lines with a lot of movement and blocking near the front. In the final stage, the leaders ran lap after lap in single file, with Hill, Allmendinger and Gragson in the top three.

MORE: Safety key topic as drivers meet at Talladega

Hill led 60 laps and won the first two stages but finished 14th.

Gragson was in pursuit of a fifth straight Xfinity Series win. He finished 10th.

Remarkably for a Talladega race, the entire 38-car field finished. The race was the 1,300th in Xfinity history, marking only the third time the entire field had been running at the finish. The other two races were at Michigan in 1998 and Langley Speedway in Virginia in 1988.

Stage 1 winner: Austin Hill

Stage 2 winner: Austin Hill

Who had a good race: AJ Allmendinger got the “can’t win on superspeedways” monkey off his back with a great final lap. … Sam Mayer made all the right moves but was passed in the madness of the final run down the trioval. … Landon Cassill finished a strong third and gave Allmendinger, his teammate, the winning push.

Who had a bad race: The race had to be disappointing for Austin Hill, who ran the show for most of the afternoon, winning two stages and leading 60 laps, more than twice as many as any other driver. While blocking to try to maintain the lead late in the race, he fell to 14th. … Playoff driver Jeremy Clements finished a sour 20th and is 47 points below the cutline.

Next: The Xfinity Series’ next playoff race is scheduled Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. (ET) on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. The race will be broadcast by NBC.

Safety key topic in meeting for drivers at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Cup drivers met Friday with Jeff Burton, director of the Drivers Advisory Council, and discussed safety issues ahead of this weekend’s playoff race, which will be without two drivers due to concussion-like symptoms from crashes.

Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch will not race Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. 

Busch suffered his head injury in a crash at Pocono in July. Bowman’s injury followed his crash last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Both were injured in accidents where the rear of the car hit the SAFER barrier first.

Two drivers injured in less than three months — and the series racing at a track where crashes are likely — raises tension in the Cup garage. 

Denny Hamlin blasted NASCAR on Saturday, saying it was “bad leadership” for not addressing safety concerns drivers had with the car. Hamlin also said that the Next Gen vehicle needs to be redesigned.

Burton, who also is an analyst for NBC Sports, said in an exclusive interview that Friday’s meeting was lengthy because there were several topics to discuss. Burton didn’t go into details on all the topics.

Safety was a key element of that meeting. Burton, whose role with the Drivers Advisory Council is to coordinate the group and communicate with NASCAR, discussed the cooperation level with NASCAR.

“We feel like we have cooperation with NASCAR,” he said. “We know the commitments from NASCAR. They’ve made real commitments to us. We want to see those commitments through. I believe that we will in regards to changes to the car. 

“We want to see that come to conclusion as soon as possible. They have made commitments to us and are showing us what is happening, communicating with us in regard to timing, and we want to see it come to conclusion, as they do. 

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get some changes done before last weekend. It just takes a long time to test stuff.”

NASCAR has a crash test scheduled next week on a new rear clip and rear bumper. Even if the test goes well, there’s not enough time for any such changes this season with five races left.

The frustration from drivers — and voiced by Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — has been that NASCAR was informed about issues with a stiffer car for more than a year. Some questions were raised after William Byron crashed in a test in March 2020 at Auto Club Speedway.

“William Byron busted his ass at (Auto Club) Speedway and that should have raised a red flag right off the bat,” Harvick said Saturday.

Hamlin said more drivers needed to speak up about concerns with the car.

“I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives,” Hamlin said.

Byron is looking for changes to be made.

“I want to have a long career, and I don’t want to have a series of concussions that make me either have to step way from the car or have to think about long-term things,” he said.

Chase Elliott also shared his frustrations Saturday.

“You come off a week like we had in Texas and somebody getting injured and then you come into here, where odds are we’re probably all going to hit something at some point (Sunday) and probably not lightly at that,” Elliot said.

So what do drivers do?

“Do you just not show up?” Elliott said. “Do you just not run? I don’t think that’s feasible to ask. There’s always an inherent risk in what we do and it’s always been that way. 

“My frustration is … I just hate that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. It’s just disappointing that we’ve put ourselves here and we had a choice. We did this to ourselves as an industry. 

“That should have just never been the case. We should not have put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. So my disappointment lies in that that we had years and time and opportunity to make this thing right before we put it on track and we didn’t, and now we’re having to fix it. 

“I just hate that we did that. I think we’re smarter than that. I think there’s just a lot of men and women that work in this garage that know better and we shouldn’t have been here.”

Burton told NBC Sports that drivers did not discuss in Friday’s meeting running single-file in Sunday’s race as a form of protest.

“It wouldn’t be surprising for me to see single-file (racing Sunday) because of what happened at Texas and what could happen next week (at the Charlotte Roval),” Burton said. “Drivers need a period of calmness. 

“There was not a discussion, a collaborated effort or any sort of thing of how you race (Sunday). That conversation did not come up in that meeting.”

Harvick said Saturday that he’ll continue to be vocal about safety issues.

“I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure these guys are in a good spot,” Harvick said. “Whatever I have to do.”

Harvick later said: “I don’t think any of us want to be in this position. We have to have the safety we deserve to go out and put on a great show and be comfortable with that. 

“Obviously, we all have taken the risks of being race car drivers, but there’s no reason we should be in a worse position than we were last year.”

Harvick said it was a matter of trust.

“The reality of the situation is much different than what they’re looking at,” Harvick said of NASCAR officials. “I think that the trust level is obviously not where it needs to be from getting it fixed. I think they’re going to have to earn the trust level back of reacting quick enough to do the things that it takes. The drivers’ opinion, especially when it comes to safety side of things, has to be more important than the data or more important than the cost. Safety can’t be a budget item.”

Corey LaJoie, who is a member of the Drivers Advisory Council board, said that while challenges remain with the car, he sees the effort being made by NASCAR.

“Nothing happens quick in this deal when you have 38 teams and you have seven cars per team,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “It has to be a well-thought-out process to implement the changes.

“It’s easy to get up in arms and prickly when we have guys like Alex and Kurt out. You don’t ever want that to happen. Every conversation I’m having is what we, as the Driver Council, is trying to communicate to NASCAR and NASCAR making proactive changes and moving timelines up aggressively to try to implement these changes.”

Matt DiBenedetto wins NASCAR Truck race at Talladega

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Matt DiBenedetto won Saturday’s 250-mile NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Talladega Superspeedway on a day pockmarked by numerous accidents, including a major one at the finish.

As the field swept to the finish line in overtime, a multi-car crash developed as Corey Heim lost control of his truck in the trioval. Several trucks crashed approaching the finish as the caution flag flew.

NASCAR officials studied video of the final lap to determine that DiBenedetto was in front when the caution lights were turned on, although Bret Holmes appeared to beat him to the finish line by inches. When caution lights appear, the field is frozen at that point, so any position changes after the caution are irrelevant.

MORE: TalladeTalladega Truck results

MORE: Talladega Truck driver points

The last lap was the only one led by DiBenedetto, who has been racing in NASCAR national series since 2009 but scored his first win.

Following DiBenedetto, a non-playoff driver, at the finish were Ben Rhodes, Holmes, Ryan Preece and Christian Eckes.

With one race remaining in the Round of 8, Ty Majeski has locked in a spot in the final four at Phoenix. Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Rhodes are above the cutline. Below the line are Stewart Friesen, Eckes, John Hunter Nemechek and Grant Enfinger.

MORE: Denny Hamlin says NASCAR needs leadership changes

A string of accidents left only two playoff drivers — Eckes and Rhodes — in the top 10 with 10 laps remaining.

Carson Hocevar dropped out of the lead group with five laps to go when he lost a tire, prompting a caution flag and pushing the race into overtime.

The race was marred by a fiery crash in the early going as Jordan Anderson‘s truck exploded in flames while running in the top five in a tight draft.

Anderson steered the truck to the inside as flames fired up on both sides of the vehicle. The truck crashed into the inside wall even as Anderson climbed from the driver-side window. He was transported to an area hospital.

On Lap 35, Lawless Alan hit the wall hard after his right front tire blew. He was evaluated and released from the infield medical center.

Another dangerous situation developed on Lap 63 as numerous trucks pitted at the same time under green. As Hailie Deegan attempted to stop in her pit, one of the crew members lost control of a tire, and it rolled into traffic and onto the grass area separating pit road from the track. A Deegan crew member chased down the tire in the grass and later was ejected from the track by NASCAR officials for a safety violation.

On Lap 79, Enfinger’s truck blew a tire and slammed the wall, starting a crash that collected Tanner Gray, Johnny Sauter and Austin Wayne Self.

Stage 1 winner: John Hunter Nemechek

Stage 2 winner: Chandler Smith

Who had a good race: Matt DiBenedetto had been waiting a very long time for this winning moment. … Alabama driver Bret Holmes almost won in front of the home crowd. He finished third.

Who had a bad race: Jordan Anderson had one of the most frightening crashes of the season, bailing out of his flaming truck after it caught fire in the middle of a pack of drafting trucks. … Playoff drivers John Hunter Nemechek (finished 24th) and Grant Enfinger (29th) had rough outings.

Next: The Truck Series is off for three weeks before racing at Homestead-Miami Speedway Oct. 22. The series’ final race is scheduled Nov. 4 at Phoenix Raceway.