Justin Haley and Kaz Grala Join Forces at Rick Ware Racing

Rick Ware Racing

Rick Ware Racing will have a new driver lineup in 2024 as Justin Haley takes over behind the wheel of the No. 51 Ford Mustang and Kaz Grala pilots the No. 15 for 25 races. Both drivers spoke about their new opportunities during the National Motorsports Press Association Convention last weekend.

JUSTIN HALEY, No. 51 Rick Ware Racing Ford Mustang – HOW HAS THE TRANSITION TO RWR BEEN LIKE SO FAR? “I haven’t dug too deep into it. Obviously, I got married pretty early on in the offseason, so that took up a majority of my time and then I’ve just been spending a lot of time with family. I went out to the Chili Bowl and probably have been to the shop once or twice for seat stuff. I just went through my Roush Yates stuff the other day and their engine shop. I was super impressed with that and glad we’re on that side with everything. I’ll probably start digging into it a little bit more. I talked to Chris Lawson a little bit. He’s been awesome. He’s a rock star, just a winner. He can really get the job done, so I’m really super excited to have him on the 51 team. The transition has been good. Everyone at Rick Ware Racing has been super professional and super excited to have me in the seat, which has been refreshing.”

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT WHAT WENT INTO THE DECISION TO MAKE THE MOVE TO RWR? “It’s just all about placing yourself. Life is about positioning yourself at the right opportunity to succeed, so, for me personally, I thought this was a good step and a good direction – aligning myself with a different manufacturer in Ford and a technical alliance with RFK was obviously huge, so it just kind of seemed like everything had stalled out where I was and I needed to make a change for myself and I thought this was a good opportunity. Rick and Lisa Ware have both been super honest with me and welcoming and I think they’re personalities and how they run their race teams is awesome. I had no idea they were celebrating two decades in this sport. They’ve been around for 20 years and they’re scrappy. They get everything out of what they have, so hopefully with what we’re doing with the 51 car and the 15 car having some solid drivers and good sponsorship coming in that we can kind of elevate the program and continue on.”

ANY THOUGHT OF MAYBE RUNNING THE INDY 500 WITH THEM? “No. I’ve actually turned down one or two Indy 500 rides, which is surprising. I don’t feel like I’m quite ready for it yet, but I had an opportunity to run it a few years back and then I think one other time, so I don’t know – not quite yet. I’m not quite to the point in my career where I feel like that’s something I want to tackle. Obviously, it would be fun being from Indiana and growing up and watching the Indy 500, but I don’t know. I just feel like I want to focus on what I’m doing right now. I don’t need to venture too far off. I feel like the guys later in their career want to go do fun stuff like that, but for me it’s just kind of all focus on the Cup Series.”

ROBBIE SAID IT’S NOT OFF THE TABLE. “No, it’s not. We’ll have to talk, but it hasn’t interested me too much yet.”

WHERE DO YOU VIEW YOURSELF AS A RACER RIGHT NOW? “You just wait for the right opportunity. I feel like there are so many really talented race car drivers out there and the Cup Series is kind of hard to get into and then it’s even harder to stay once you get there, so just keeping yourself relevant and keeping yourself in a competitive seat, like I said, where I’m moving towards now with Ford has been huge already. I haven’t even sat down in a Ford or a Roush Yates car, a Rick Ware Racing car yet, but I already feel so welcome. Everyone has been so awesome, so I feel like what I can bring to the table at Rick Ware, I feel like I’m super confident in my abilities with the Next Gen car. I’ve had 110 or so starts in a NASCAR Cup Series car, so I feel confident in my ability. You always wait for the right opportunity, have the right partners come on board and the right people around you, and I feel like I’m starting to gain traction toward that.”

WHAT IS LIKE LIKE FOR YOU NOW? “I try to keep myself busy, probably too busy. Thankfully, my wife Haley is awesome and supports me through it all. It’s good. It’s been a good change for me. This is a change I was super adamant about making – to go to a different race team and kind of reestablish myself and kind of recenter myself and my values. Like I said, I went to a luncheon with Rick and Lisa and everyone at RWR and what I thought was cool was Rick and Lisa went around and knew everyone by their first and last name and then knew their kids by their first and last name and knew what sports they’re doing. That’s just something you don’t see a lot is owners like that really caring about their employees to that extent. I just thought it was crazy. They were asking how softball practice was going or soccer practice, so that was pretty cool to see. Obviously, it’s a small organization, but Rick really believes in all the people he has under his roof and wants us all to succeed together. Hopefully, I’m the guy that can deliver him his first win.”

YOU WERE UP FRONT AND COMPETITIVE AT THE CLASH LAST YEAR. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS YEAR’S EVENT? “I’ve qualified first and third there and made the show and had good runs. I was just talking with Chris Lawson this week about what I fight at the Clash. I was like, ‘Man, I’ve had two pretty perfect cars at the Clash, so I don’t know how much to give you.’ I’ve been very fortunate to fly all the way out there and be competitive, so I’m excited. It’s obviously gonna be something different. You kind of knew what you had with my previous car and this year there are a lot of unknowns – a new manufacturer, a new team, new people, new spotter. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the steering wheel and the seat I’m sitting in because I brought those over, so we’ll have to see. It’s definitely anticipation. It’s a long flight out there and you start thinking and you just want to run good, so we’ll see.”

WHAT MESSAGE DO YOU WANT TO GET OUT TO FANS ABOUT YOU AND RWR? “I’m not sure quite yet. You kind of have to see where we land. It’s an ultra competitive racing series and it’s gonna take some time. Obviously, with everything we have going I feel like all of our alliances with Ford and Roush Yates and RFK have grown a lot over the offseason and I continue to see those grow. The first five to 10 races we’ll kind of be what we are and then Chris and everyone at RWR will start to elevate and start to hit our stride. We’ll just have to see. It’s not gonna be like we go and rip the first 10 wins off of the season. I feel like we’re realistic, but I also feel like we really want to be competitive and there is all the right tools now to be competitive at Rick Ware. We have every single tool. We just have to take them out of the tool box and figure out how to use them and apply that.”

YOU’RE GOOD AT DAYTONA. “Yeah, we are. I’ve told everyone all week that I’ve raced against the Fords for so long. They have the best fuel mileage, the best strategy and the best teamwork and it has pissed me off for so long racing them that I’m so excited to sit in a Ford. They didn’t even pay me extra to say that. It’s so true.”

AND THEY HAVE SOME GOOD HORSEPOWER. “Yeah, they qualify so fast. Like I said, I just went through Roush Yates the other day and what an impressive operation they have built. I’ve never seen an engine shop that looks like that before. I mean, it looked like rocket science. There were lab coats and face masks and big rubber gloves and microscopes and all sorts of stuff just to build horsepower. They have crushed us on fuel mileage and now we’ve got an awesome brand new looking Dark Horse Mustang, so I’m super excited to go down to Daytona and see what we’ve got.”

YOU’VE RAISED THE EXPECTATIONS FOR THIS TEAM. WHAT’S IT LIKE FOR YOU COMING OVER WITH THAT FEELING? “It’s just a belief. There’s a lot more to winning a race in the Cup Series. Rick and everyone at RWR and Ford has put a lot of trust in me and a lot of belief, and RFK too. Every decision that Rick pretty much makes, RFK has to OK as well, so I just appreciate the belief from everyone. It’s hard to win a Cup race. There’s a lot more than just being fast as a driver, having a fast car. You have to have a good pit crew and good people around you, so I feel like we’re gonna have some good runs. Hopefully, we’ll get a win at some point. You never know when that can happen. Chicago last year, for me, was just out of the blue, so with this car the platform is as level as it can be and that’s what makes these decisions to come to teams like Rick Ware even easier.”

TO BE FULL-TIME WITH THIS TEAM, HOW DOES THAT HELP ELEVATE RWR? “From what I’ve gathered, the shop guys are super excited about it so they don’t have to change seats or anything. I’m like, ‘Hey, when you mount this seat, you can leave it all year. You don’t have to change a single thing. The steering wheel can be in the exact same place.’ They thought that was funny, so it’ll be fun. Like I said, we’ve got awesome talent on the 51 team and the 15 team. Bringing over Chris Lawson, I mean, he’s just a winner. The guy has won. He goes to work every day. He’s probably there first and then the last one to leave. I was super adamant on getting him over and feel like he’s gonna be a big step in the right direction for us and hopefully we can take the first half of the season and see where we’re at and then improve from there.”

WHAT BENEFITS CAN CHRIS BRING FROM THE TRUCK SERIES? “He’s a winner in anything. He might not know the Next Gen car like some of the other crew chiefs might, but with our alliance with Ford, our alliance with RFK, he will have all of the information and tools to go out and succeed. All he has to do is build a team, be a team leader and do what he does and that’s finding that extra bit. Like I said, we have all of the tools. I firmly believe that we do.”

KAZ GRALA, No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Ford Mustang – IS THIS YEAR ONE OF ANTICIPATION? WHAT EMOTIONS ARE YOU FEELING NOW? “A lot of anticipation. I didn’t get a chance to race in the Cup Series last year, but I did a couple of years before and had always hoped that I’d make it back to do more races. I feel like I have unfinished business. My goal, my dream would be to race in the Cup Series full-time for years to come, so I feel like this is a huge opportunity for me to try to make that a reality. I think that Rick Ware Racing is putting all the pieces in place to be able to go out and impress and make the most of this opportunity, so that’s what my focus is on and we don’t know yet as an organization what that could look like. We don’t really have any idea what our expectations could be, but I think that’s kind of exciting. It means the sky’s the limit. Expectations probably aren’t sky high, so that gives us an opportunity to maybe do something special.”

WHAT DID YOU LEARN IN THE SUMMER SHOOTOUT THAT’S BENEFITTING YOU NOW? “Probably how to be aggressive on short tracks, that’s the main thing. It’s definitely been cool growing up around here. I grew up racing Bandoleros and Legend cars around this area of Charlotte Motor Speedway. One of the races on my schedule this year is the Coke 600, so to be able to come back here to Charlotte, a place that’s so special to me and race at the top level is so cool, and I get to do that 25 times this year at various racetracks. I’ve raced at Atlanta in the Legend cars and Bandoleros before, New Hampshire, so these are all places I’ll get to race this year in the Cup Series, which is really special.”

WHAT DO YOU THINK IT WILL BE LIKE WHEN YOU RACE THE 600? WILL YOU LOOK AROUND AND TAKE IT ALL IN? “I think I will. I feel like I’ve been pretty good about that in the Cup Series starts that I had previously in just enjoying the moment and being able to relax and take it all in. That first Cup race I did, filling in for Austin Dillon when he had COVID, that was one that I knew was gonna be a memory of mine forever. I grew up racing a No. 3 car in Bandoleros and the Legend cars, so never in a million years would I have thought that I would get to make my Cup debut in that car, and then I ended up finishing seventh in that race, so that weekend was really special and I’ve tried to take time to enjoy each one since then and really be able to soak it in.”

WHAT HAS IT BEEN LIKE TO PERSEVERE AND GET THIS OPPORTUNITY BECAUSE YOU’VE BEEN AT THIS FOR A FEW YEARS NOW? “There were plenty of years that I questioned whether I would get to race or whether my time was done in NASCAR. It certainly wasn’t smooth sailing for me for a long time and these last couple of years I’ve been able to get more consistent opportunities and this one might just be my best one yet. I would say it’s a relief to be able to know that I’m gonna be in a car and in a competitive car at this level as much as I will be this year, so it almost motivates me more to make the most of the opportunity because I know what it can feel like going into a season unsure, and I want to make sure that isn’t the case next year.”

YOU’VE GOT 25 RACES THIS YEAR, SO DOES THAT TAKE OFF SOME PRESSURE OF FEELING LIKE YOU HAVE TO GET GREAT RESULTS RIGHT OFF THE BAT? “Yeah. That was kind of how I felt last year too with being full-time in Xfinity. For a change, I didn’t have to get it all done right now this weekend. I could show what I was capable of over the course of the season and this year feels exactly the same way. I have no doubt we’re gonna have weekends where we struggle, but if we can supplement that with weekends where we really excel and punch above our weight, that makes it all worth it and it’s no easy feat to do that on Sundays. If you are able to do it, then it’s a big deal every time.”

HOW IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH JUSTIN AND BEING HIS TEAMMATE? “We actually started out disliking each other quite a bit back in the K&N Series. I got parked for a lap for aggressive driving for turning him, which I think was a terrible call. I think it was completely his fault, so we did not like each other at all. We ended up being teammates at GMS and for the first six races we raced each other so hard that we cost ourselves positions to other drivers, so my crew chief sat me down and said you’ve got to figure this out. Go out to dinner with him. You guys can’t keep wrecking each other’s races like this, so we went out to dinner and I hung out with him for hours that night and we’ve been best friends ever since. We haven’t had any problems racing each other since then, but we have been best friends for years and have had a lot of fun together. This will be cool getting to be teammates at the Cup level.”

HOW DO YOU ANTICIPATE THE DYNAMIC OF THIS SITUATION WORKING OUT? “I think it’ll be great. Justin and I communicate well together and we kind of speak the same language. We’re the same age. We’re three months apart, and then of course we’re both new to Rick Ware Racing, so we’ll kind of know what each other is going through and being able to bounce ideas or questions off of each other after practice, so I think it’s gonna be a really productive relationship this year.”

WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF THROUGH LAST YEAR WITH THE FULL XFINITY SEASON? “It is a grind and that was my first time running a season that long, so I feel like that will prepare me for this year, knowing what to expect as far as every week you come back from a racetrack, you’re debriefing from that race and you’re immediately planning and preparing for the next one. So, I feel used to that after last year and, honestly, I think being with a bit of an underdog team last year is helpful for this situation because we had weekends last year that we unloaded and were fourth on the board, which was awesome, and we had ones that we were legitimately 37th on the board and we were on the splitter and had to figure something out and we did. So, I feel like we’ll have a little bit of both of those this year. I’m sure we’re gonna hit it really well some weekends and maybe miss at other ones, but we’re gonna have to find our way into the box by the end of the weekend to be able to get the most out of it. I feel like I did a lot of that last year, so I’m ready to do some more of it.”

HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO HAVE CONSECUTIVE RACES AND TRY TO BUILD THAT CONSISTENCY? “I think that is very important. I’ve raced part-time for a number of years before and I know what it’s like to have to hop in cold. The problem is not everybody is hopping in cold. If it was all equal, then you’d be fine but you still end up racing against people that are full-time and in the Cup Series guys that have been with their same team for 10 years, so it would be really hard trying to come in cold in those opportunities. I think my schedule this year will be good for keeping me warmed up, keeping me in the seat. It’s good for the qualifying metric all around. Doing consecutive races is a good thing, so that’s the plan.”

WHAT IS YOUR PREPARATION LIKE DURING RACE WEEK? “I think the preparation for me is probably gonna look very similar to what I’ve done in the past. A lot of video, sim work. I keep really detailed notes post-race always, which, of course, the Next Gen car is a little bit different, so I’m not sure how many of my details will be applicable from my past notes at racetracks, but I review them going into the weekend nonetheless and go out and try it in practice, see if I can find that juice that I found 263 laps into the race last year. You just try to take notes to where you can start ahead of where you started last time. Start where you left off because as much as you would think you’d remember those things, when it’s been a year since you’ve been at that racetrack, sometimes it does feel like you’re starting from scratch. All of the preparation is just about trying to not feel like you’re starting from scratch each weekend. I think I do a good job with that stuff. I think I should be able to be prepared going into each weekend, but ultimately I’ll be feeling a Next Gen car for the first time at a lot of these places, so I’ll have that to tackle this year.”

WHAT ENCOURAGED YOU ABOUT RICK WARE RACING TO SIGN ON FOR THESE 25 RACES? “Just really what they’re changing and what they’re working on. I’ve known Robby Benton for years. I raced for him in the Rolex 24 two years when I was 17 and 18 years old, so I know Robby really well. I feel like he’s a very smart guy, very organized, meticulous, perfectionist just like myself, so knowing that he’s kind of in charge of things over there and overseeing everything definitely gave me a lot of confidence in what the program would be capable of. Then we got into the actual details of who they’re hiring and where their shop is located and what they’re adding to the shop and what they’re doing differently on the cars. They’re gonna have the healthiest budget that they’ve ever had at the team this year, so I just feel like the sky’s the limit as far as what we’re gonna be able to accomplish together. I do feel like there is something satisfying about getting in on the ground floor of something and trying to build something special that is a little extra cool to be a part of than simply plugging into somewhere that’s already at the top.”

WHERE DO YOU SET EXPECTATIONS HEADING INTO THIS? “I think sometimes excelling in the Cup Series can look fairly humble, especially depending on the team you’re with. Your average, casual fan might look at it and ask how many you’ve won this year, but that doesn’t necessarily dictate a good season. For us, if we can go fairly regularly run in and around the top 20, that’s a huge deal. You’re beating a lot of cars, a lot of teams that are incredibly well funded and well driven and well engineered when you do that, so I’m sure we’re gonna have days where we’re struggling and we’re outside the top 25, but if we have enough days that we’re inside the top 20, that’s a really, really phenomenal season. I think, in my opinion, we’ve got our opportunities like superspeedways or road courses where maybe those expectations are even a little bit higher for where we’re able to finish. Maybe it’s a top 15 or a top 10 that day. That would be huge for us. That’s what we’re going to go into each weekend thinking – just maximize what we can get and we won’t know what that will look like until we hit the track, but once we do it’s just about not making mistakes, executing and being able to get the most out of that day.”

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