● Justin Haley, driver of the No. 51 Walmart Health & Wellness Ford Mustang for Rick Ware Racing (RWR) in the NASCAR Cup Series, is set to make his first start with the team in the non-points Busch Light Clash at The Coliseum. The 24-year-old driver has started in each of the previous two Clash events on the purpose-built, quarter-mile, asphalt oval inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
● In 2022, the first year the traditional season-opening exhibition race was held in Los Angeles, Haley was fourth in practice and won his heat race to line up third for the 150-lap feature. He completed only 116 laps and finished 19th after an accident ended his bid. When the Cup Series returned to the Coliseum last year, Haley qualified ninth and finished 11th in the feature.
● Haley is most successful on superspeedways, a stat highlighted by his 2019 victory in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 on the 2.5-mile Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. However, Haley does own four top-five finishes and 12 top-10s in 21 short-track starts in the stepping-stone division to Cup – the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Best among those was a pair of runner-up finishes at Richmond (Va.) Raceway in September 2021 and 2022.
● The primary partner aligned with Haley and RWR’s No. 51 Ford Mustang at the Clash is Walmart Health & Wellness. The Clash kicks off the partnership with RWR, as it’s the first of various initiatives this season with Walmart Health & Wellness, which will also pair Haley with RWR’s NHRA driver Clay Millican, who competes in the Top Fuel class of the Mission Foods NHRA Drag Racing Series. Said Haley about the partnership: “I’m excited to partner with Walmart Health & Wellness this season. We’ve developed a great relationship and I think it’s always a win to have a recognizable brand on track. It says so much that they’re supporting the No. 51 team, as well as Clay in his endeavors on the Top Fuel side. I’m fortunate that Rick believes in me and my abilitiesas a driver to come over to RWR and contribute to the growth of the team, and I think Walmart Health & Wellness being involved with RWR’s NASCAR and NHRA programs says a lot about their belief in us as a whole.”
● Boston native Kaz Grala will look to make the Clash feature in the No. 15 N29 Capital Partners Ford Mustang for RWR in his first visit to the L.A. Coliseum and his first Busch Light Clash. It will be his eighth career Cup Series appearance.
● This season marks the third time Grala and Haley have worked as teammates. The once fierce competitors first united in 2017 when Haley joined GMS Racing, where Grala was competing fulltime in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. Grala made his Cup Series debut in the August 2020 race on the Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway road course as a stand-in for Austin Dillon. He drove to a seventh-place finish that earned him a limited run in 2021 in the No. 16 Kaulig Racing entry, which he drove to a sixth-place finish in the April race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. Haley piloted the same entry to a top-20 finish in that year’s October race at Talladega.
● While this weekend marks Grala’s first short-track appearance in the Cup Series, he owns 20 career short-track starts in the Xfinity Series and Truck Series. Series bests among those 20 starts is his fourth-place Xfinity Series finish in April 2023 at Richmond and his seventh-place Truck Series result in October 2017 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
● The primary partner aligned with Grala and RWR’s No. 15 Ford Mustang at the Clash is N29 Capital Partners. N29 Capital Partners financially supports early-stage startup companies that have created products or services that are disruptive in their industry.
You’re making your third start in the Clash to kick off your third full season in the Cup Series, and you’re doing it with a new team. Talk about your move to RWR, and what you’re expecting from the No. 51 Ford team.
“It’s always tough to make a big decision like switching teams, but I felt like it was something I needed to explore. Rick Ware was really open with me, he wasn’t hiding anything, and that was really appealing. When it comes down to it, we can just sit down, talk and be real with each other and I really like that. There are a lot of reasons why this decision made sense for me. We may not go out and win the first 10 races, but I do think we can show up down the road and be really competitive. Ford brings a lot to the table, along with the alliance with Roush Fenway Keselowksi Racing (RFK).”
Where do you feel you are in your career right now?
“I feel like I’ve taken advantage of the right opportunity for me. There are so many really talented racecar drivers out there and the Cup Series is hard to get into, and even harder to stay in, once you get there. Keeping yourself relevant and keeping yourself in a competitive seat is big. What I’m moving toward now has already been really exciting. I haven’t even sat in a Ford or a RWR car yet, but I already feel so welcome. Everyone has been so awesome and I’m super confident in my abilities in a Cup car. I’ve had almost 110 starts in the NASCAR Cup Series car, so I feel confident in what I can bring to the team. You always wait for the right opportunity, and to have the right partners come on board and the right people around you, I really feel like I’m starting to gain traction toward that.”
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’ve been fortunate to be competitive there both years, so I’m excited. It’s obviously going to be something different. I kind of knew what you had with my previous team and 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. There’s definitely a lot of anticipation. It’s a long flight out there and you start thinking and you just want to run good.”
You’ve got a new crew chief to work with at RWR. Why is Chris Lawson the guy you want on the No. 51, and what do you expect him to bring with him from his time in the Truck Series?
“Chris is just a winner. He will outwork everyone in the garage and everyone in the shop, too. He’s just a go-getter and that’s what I like about him. He maximizes every part of the car. I think we’re both young and want to achieve something, and he believes in me and I believe in him. He might not know the Cup car like some of the other crew chiefs, but with our alliance with Ford and our alliance with RFK, he will have all of the information and tools to go out and succeed. Hopefully, we can take the first half of the season and see where we’re at and then improve from there. He’s a winner in anything. 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.”
Early in your career, you did a lot of racing on smaller tracks. Is that where you find you’re most comfortable, and how will that help you navigate your way into the feature race at the Coliseum?
“I’ve run a million laps on quarter-mile tracks, but it has been a long time. I think it’ll definitely be a bit of a learning curve in practice with this being a new track for me and a new car. But we have a teammate who has done pretty well in the Clash in the past, so I’ll be leaning on him for some information and help.”
What led you to make the decision to join RWR this season?
“The partnership with RFK and the investment that Rick has made into bringing in the right people are some of the driving factors for why I made the decision. I think that we could be a lot better than people expect us to be this year. They have Tommy Baldwin (competition director) and Robby Benton as the team president. I worked with Robby in the past and drove his car in the Rolex 24 when I was young, so I feel like they’re putting some powerhouse people in place and really gearing up to be a serious contender. I’m very appreciative that Rick and Robby and everybody saw me as being a part of that growth and a part of their future because I know they had a lot of options out there. They’ve definitely made me feel very welcomed, very appreciated and wanted in that they think that I’m the right person for the job.”
A lot of people like to view RWR as an underdog team and that is a position you’ve found yourself in many times throughout your career. How do you continue to push forward knowing that perception is out there?
“I feel like I have very rarely in my career found myself in the comfortable, easy position. I have definitely had to scratch and claw to find my place and to find success. I feel like I excel in that underdog position. I like to be able to take care of the equipment, get the most out of it and bring as good or better results than the team has previously been able to get. I truly think that’s something I can do at RWR and something we can do as an organization. Nothing happens overnight, but we have a good group of people in place that can help us get past the doubt that others place on us.”