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


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. 

Alpha Prime Racing’s road woes don’t keep team from competing


SONOMA, Calif. — Alpha Prime Racing owner Tommy Joe Martins laughs. He can. His Xfinity Series cars all are here at Sonoma Raceway.

At one point last week, it was not certain if his team’s cars would make it to Portland International Raceway.

“It was probably the toughest professional week I’ve had of my NASCAR career,” Martins told NBC Sports on Friday at Sonoma.

MORE: Kyle Larson leads Xfinity practice at Sonoma

The Alpha Prime Racing team had both its trucks break down and one of its haulers have mechanical issues last week on the way to the Pacific Northwest.

“We basically sent four pieces of equipment on the road and three of them broke,” Martins said.

For a time, the car Sage Karam is driving this weekend at Sonoma was left in a hauler in Kansas City because there wasn’t room in the dually Martins sent. It had room only for the car that was needed at Portland and other equipment. Karam’s car, which was to be a backup at Portland, was left behind.

“It’s a very helpless feeling when you feel like your stuff is stuck on the side of the road,” Martins said.

He still has one truck still in St. Louis and another in Oregon. Martins estimates the mechanical issues will cost his team about $50,000 when everything is totaled.

Trouble started well before the team left its Mooresville, North Carolina, race shop for Portland.

The Xfinity Series race at Charlotte was scheduled to run May 27. Rain forced that event to be rescheduled to May 29. Martins said the team had planned to send its trucks to Portland on May 28. With the race pushed back to the 29th, the travel schedule tightened.

It got worse.

After the Xfinity race started, rain came. With the Coca-Cola 600 scheduled for 3 p.m. ET that day – after being delayed by rain from Sunday – the rest of the Xfinity race was pushed back until after the 600. That further tightened the window on Xfinity teams to make it to Portland.

The Xfinity race ended around 11:30 p.m. ET on May 29. Alpha Prime Racing’s haulers left the shop around 6 a.m. ET on May 30.

The two trucks traveled together until issues in St. Louis.

The truck hauling the Nos. 44 and 45 cars had engine issues in St. Louis. The other truck kept going until it had mechanical issues with its hauler in Kansas City. The air bags on the hauler failed.

So, Alpha Prime Racing had a truck that worked in Kansas City with a hauler that didn’t and a truck that didn’t work in St. Louis with a hauler that did.

The truck in Kansas City went back to St. Louis to attach to the hauler and take those cars and equipment to Portland. Martins then had to find something to haul the stranded equipment in Kansas City and a driver. He eventually did. A dually left North Carolina for Kansas City. Once there, what fit in the dually was taken to Portland and what didn’t, including Karam’s Sonoma car stayed behind.

Yet, more trouble was headed for Martins and his team.

The truck that had gone back from Kansas City to St. Louis to take hauler that worked then broke down about 200 miles from Portland.

“I laugh knowing that we’re on the other side of it,” Martins said Friday of all the issues his team had transporting cars and equipment across the country.

“We’ve started to make plans and corrections for it not happening again,” he said.

That hauler that was left in Kansas City? It was repaired and transported to Sonoma, arriving earlier this week.

“Our guys are troopers,” Martins said. “Both of our (truck) drivers were just awesome about the whole thing. … They went through hell week as far as driving somewhere, fly back and pick something up, drive again and now are going to have to do the same thing getting back.”

When the garage opened Friday at Sonoma, Alpha Prime Racing had all its cars.

“I don’t think we had any major issues here, so that was good,” Martins said.

The focus is back on the track. Karam was 24th on the speed chart in Friday’s practice, leading Alpha Prime Racing’s effort. Dylan Lupton was 32nd. Jeffrey Earnhardt was last among 41 cars.

After Saturday night’s race, the team heads back to North Carolina for a well-earned weekend off.

Kyle Larson leads Xfinity practice at Sonoma


SONOMA, Calif. — Kyle Larson posted the fastest lap in Friday’s Xfinity Series practice at Sonoma Raceway.

This is the first time the series has raced at the 1.99-mile road course in Northern California. Teams got 50 minutes of practice Friday.

Larson led the way with a lap of 90.392 mph. He was more than a second faster than the rest of the field.

MORE: Xfinity practice results Sonoma

Sheldon Creed was second on the speed chart with a lap of 89.066 mph. He was followed by AJ Allmendinger (89.052 mph), Cole Custer (89.020) and Ty Gibbs (88.989).

Larson, Allmendinger and Gibbs are among seven Cup drivers are entered in the Xfinity race. Aric Almirola was seventh on the speed chart with a lap of 88.750 mph. Ross Chastain was ninth with a lap of 88.625 mph. Daniel Suarez was 16th with a lap of 88.300 mph. Ty Dillon was 33rd with a lap of 86.828 mph.

Anthony Alfredo will go to a backup car after a crash in practice. He was uninjured in the incident that damaged the right side of his car.

Qualifying is scheduled for 3 p.m. ET Saturday. The race is scheduled to begin at 8:20 p.m. ET Saturday.

Anthony Alfredo’s car after a crash in Xfinity practice Friday at Sonoma Raceway. He was uninjured. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Saturday Sonoma Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather


The Xfinity Series will compete for the first time at Sonoma Raceway this weekend. This is one of eight road course events on the Xfinity schedule this season.

Seven Cup drivers are scheduled to compete in Saturday’s race, including AJ Allmendinger, Kyle Larson and Daniel Suarez, who won last year’s Cup race at this track Allmendinger has won 11 of 25 career road course starts in the Xfinity Series.

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Sonoma Raceway

(All times Eastern)

START: Golden State Warrior Patrick Baldwin Jr. will give the command to start engines at 8:08 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to wave at 8:20 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Qualifying begins at 3 p.m. … Driver introductions begin at 7:35 p.m. … The invocation will be given by Earl Smith, team pastor for the Golden State Warriors and San Francisco 49ers, at 8 p.m. … The national anthem will be performed by 9-year-old Isis Mikayle Castillo at 8:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 79 laps (156.95 miles) on the 1.99-mile road course.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 20. Stage 2 ends at Lap 45.

STARTING LINEUP: Qualifying begins at 3 p.m. Saturday

TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race at 8 p.m. ... Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. … Performance Racing Network coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. and can be heard on … SiriusXN NASCAR Radio will carry the PRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Mostly cloudy with a high of 72 degrees and a zero percent chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: This is the first time the Xfinity Series has raced at Sonoma.


NASCAR Friday schedule at Sonoma Raceway


The Xfinity Series makes its first appearance Friday at Sonoma Raceway.

Xfinity teams, coming off last weekend’s race at Portland International Raceway, get 50 minutes of practice Friday because Sonoma is a new venue for the series.

Seven Cup drivers, including Kyle Larson and Daniel Suarez, are among those entered in the Xfinity race. Suarez won the Cup race at Sonoma last year.

Xfinity teams will qualify and race Saturday at the 1.99-mile road course.

Sonoma Raceway


Friday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 69 degrees.

Friday, June 9

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — ARCA Menards Series West
  • 1 – 10 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 2 – 3 p.m. — ARCA West practice
  • 3:10 – 3:30 p.m. — ARCA West qualifying
  • 4:05 – 4:55 p.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
  • 6:30 p.m. — ARCA West race (64 laps, 127.36 miles; live on FloRacing, will air on CNBC at 11:30 a.m. ET on June 18)