The past week has presented some major driver lineup news ahead of Saturday’s (April 23) NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Talladega Superspeedway. If you watch the race on Saturday, look out for Kaz Grala, Chandler Smith and Jeffrey Earnhardt.
Grala is stepping into the No. 48 Big Machine Racing Team Chevrolet, which has been piloted by Jade Buford in all but one of the team’s 41 career starts.
“We’ve made a very serious commitment to the NASCAR Xfinity Series,” team owner Scott Borchetta said in a press release. “Including our strategic partnership with [Richard Childress Racing], and at this time we need to evaluate all aspects of the team as I am determined to run up front.”
Grala will be in the car at Talladega and Dover Motor Speedway the following week. But Grala is also no stranger to Richard Childress Racing equipment. Since 2019, he has made 10 starts for RCR and two for Jordan Anderson Racing, a satellite team.
Grala’s record also shows he hasn’t failed to finish a race since 2019 due to a crash. In recent seasons, he has been one of the best at taking care of equipment, and he also has driven for other stellar organizations aside from RCR, like Kaulig Racing and GMS Racing.
Buford may sit 24th in driver’s points, but the No. 48 Big Machine Racing Team is 30th in owner’s points. That’s a steep drop from 24th in the final standings in 2021, the team’s inaugural season. The biggest reason for the falloff in points is Buford’s failure to capture a single top-20 finish on an oval this season, as his only top-20 finish is an eighth at Circuit of the Americas. In fact, the team only has three top-25 results through nine races.
Through his first eight starts in 2021, beginning at the year’s second race at the Daytona International Speedway road course, Buford scored four top-20 finishes. Beginning at Martinsville Speedway in April 2021, Buford went on a stretch to score nine top 20s in 13 races.
Performance did begin to taper off as the summer waned last year, and more results were outside the top 20 and inside the top 30. That has spilled over into 2022.
Borchetta may be looking to replace Buford permanently, and tapping Grala to be the driver to evaluate the team to move up the owner’s points over the next two races points to Grala being a possible replacement. The No. 48 team has shown flashes of quality midfield speed in 2022 and even more in 2021, but this season’s results have yet to materialize.
Talladega will be an excellent opportunity for Grala and Big Machine to bounce back and maybe even get a victory. In 2021, the track produced two first-time winners (Jeb Burton and Brandon Brown) and Grala and the No. 48 have both yet to win in Xfinity competition.
If Grala can put together a pair of top-20 finishes, it may be enough for him to convince Borchetta that he’s the driver that gets the opportunity to permanently takeover the ride.
Chandler Smith makes his Xfinity debut with Sam Hunt Racing at Talladega when he takes over the No. 26 for the first of three races. The other two are at Dover and Homestead-Miami Speedway in the fall. Smith has three victories in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series dating back to last season and sits second in points.
SHR has had a mixed bag of results, mainly due to who is driving the car. The higher caliber of driver they put in the No. 26, the better the results. That may seem like an obvious statement, but when John Hunter Nemechek or Santino Ferrucci piloted the SHR Toyota, the results were far better than any other driver. Smith is a higher caliber driver than most that have driven for the team.
For Smith, this three-race deal with SHR should be treated as an audition for 2023. Both he and Kyle Busch Motorsports teammate Nemechek could jump to Xfinity next season, but the big question is where they will drive? Sam Hunt Racing has been fielding multiple drivers since its inception in the series, including five different drivers through nine entries in 2022, making Smith the sixth driver.
Talladega is more of a lottery race compared to a more traditional race that will take place at Dover, but Smith still can’t be a slouch. He’ll need to set the tone from the start to show he can produce performances up to the same standards as Nemechek and even Ferrucci and Jeffrey Earnhardt. The reason is that SHR could be a possible landing spot for him next season. At Joe Gibbs Racing, the futures of Ty Gibbs and Brandon Jones are unknown.
Does Gibbs move up to Cup next year, and does Jones return? Let alone, is JGR willing to expand back to four teams? If Gibbs and Jones both return and JGR retains the all-star car, there may only be one seat open for a new driver. Smith will be competing with Nemechek and possibly Trevor Bayne, depending on how the remainder of his part-time tenure with the team goes in 2022.
That is why Smtih will need the absolute most out of his three races with SHR, especially Talladega and Dover. If he does well enough, he could hopefully get a few more opportunities in the No. 26 or the team’s part-time entry, the No. 24, before Homestead rolls around.
I mentioned Earnhardt above, and he has arguably the biggest race of his NASCAR career this weekend. At Talladega, the site of his grandfather’s final victory, Earnhardt will drive the No. 3 for Richard Childress Racing.
“What a dream come true,” Earnhardt said in RCR’s press release. “The chance to be behind the wheel of the No. 3 car for RCR, that my pawpaw made famous, has long been a dream of mine and now it’s finally happening.”
That short quote is all you need to know about what this race will mean for Earnhardt and his family. The No. 3 has only been piloted by an Earnhardt in three NASCAR races since Dale Earnhardt lost his life on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Dale Earnhardt Jr. piloted the No. 3 in the Xfinity Series in 2002, twice at Daytona and Charlotte, and again in 2010 at Daytona. He won both Daytona races under the RCR banner.
Not that Jeffrey needed any more situational pressure, Larry McReynolds will be his crew chief, who was the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt when he won the 1998 Daytona 500.
Earnhardt is no stranger to solid performances with quality equipment. In 2019, he earned all three of his career top 10 Xfinity finishes that year. Two were with Joe Gibbs Racing at Atlanta and Charlotte, and the third was in a JGR prepared car for XCI Racing at Texas. The Charlotte race is Earnhardt’s best career finish in all NASCAR competition – a third place.
The car Earnhardt will climb into this weekend will be the best equipment he’s driven since 2019. He’ll have to qualify on time because the car doesn’t have any owner’s points, but RCR equipment performs well at superspeedways. Starting the Ag-Pro 300 on Saturday will be enough of an accomplishment because this race isn’t going to make or break Earnhardt’s NASCAR career at the end of the day.
The car will be primarily painted black, which will give fans in attendance and at-home nostalgia, maybe even shed a tear or two. That will make this paring worth it to many. If the black No. 3 driven by Earnhardt finishes well or even wins, that will be icing on the cake and will be a contender for race of the year, heck, even the decade.
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