The white, steel-bodied Ford Mustang that finished fifth in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway over the summer was never supposed to do well. It was never supposed to race, even.
It had spent all of its known existence as a backup car for various teams that tossed it around over the years—a last resort that rode around in a trailer for nearly a decade after it was built, destined to become a show car for display outside of a track or at some gas station as soon as the Daytona race ended this year.
But even before that deadline passed, plenty of people already considered it done for.
“It was a last-ditch option—like, don’t run it unless you’ve got to,” said Tony Eury Jr., the co-founder of the race team that did, in fact, have to.
The car had a little more racing left in it than anybody ever gave it credit for, since “don’t run it unless you’ve got to” has been its M.O. for years. It was one of the last cars Evernham Motorsports built in the late 2000s, when Xfinity cars were almost unrecognizable compared to today.
Autoweek reports that Richard Petty Motorsports got the car in 2009 because of its merger with Evernham, and that it was then sold to a smaller team called Biagi-DenBeste Racing in 2014. The car landed, and didn’t do much else, at Stewart-Haas Racing for the 2018 season, when it partnered with Biagi.
All of those years, nobody really needed the Mustang. It got updated to race as a modern Xfinity Series car in case of emergency, but nobody actually planned to run it. It was just extra cargo, added to the collection with each team merger or sale.
The engine in it was old, just like the rest of it. Nobody knew when the last time it raced was, if it ever raced at all. At some point, the transmission got taken out. The car didn’t need it. It was forced into retirement long before its retirement age had come.
That is, until somebody needed it badly enough.
Xfinity Series driver Kaz Grala realized he had the chance to run Daytona just a few weeks before the race, but didn’t have a car to run it with. That’s because NASCAR regulations require a different type of car at superspeedways like Daytona, and this year’s rules were particularly restrictive—those superspeedway cars had to be steel-bodied.
NASCAR began moving from steel to composite bodies in the Xfinity Series in 2017, which basically means body panels on the new composite car can lock and bolt on rather than be welded onto the chassis like steel ones were. NASCAR said composite bodies would be mandated at every track in 2019, but still required everyone to run steel bodies at the two superspeedways this year: Daytona and Talladega. That meant all steel superspeedway cars were retired, for good, after the Daytona race in July.
In came the “don’t run it unless you’ve got to” situation. Grala’s team struck a deal with Stewart-Haas to get just enough of a steel-bodied car to pass inspection and start a race, but it ended up doing a lot more than that.
“Sometimes you get into a deal like that and it’s a really good deal,” Grala told Jalopnik in a phone interview after the race. “Sometimes you wonder if it’s too good to be true, like, ‘Are we going to get this thing and [have] to strip it down and build it from scratch?’
“But if that was the case, you probably aren’t going to go out there and grab a top-five finish with it.”
Just going out there in the first place wasn’t much of a hurdle for Grala a few months ago, because things were all planned out for him then. He was going to run all 33 races in NASCAR’s second tier with a team called JGL Racing, running for the championship. But Grala only ran 10 races before he lost his ride on short notice, when the team owner had to suspend operations due to health concerns.
Grala said he found out he wouldn’t have a ride anymore right after the Dover International Speedway race in May, with the next Xfinity Series event exactly three weeks later at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The team gave him “a couple of cars” as severance, Grala said, but not much else looked promising—until Grala and his father decided to try to run the cars out of their own shop.
That shop is Fury Race Cars, co-founded by Grala’s father, Darius Grala, and Eury to build cars for lower levels of racing. Eury started building cars once he ended his career as a crew chief in NASCAR’s top series, and Fury Race Cars turned its building out back into a shop for Grala’s unexpected Xfinity operation.
“It was midseason,” Grala said. “There weren’t really too many opportunities, but we figured, ‘Hey we’ve got a couple of these cars, why don’t we just try to run them ourselves here for the next four races?’”
Charlotte, Pocono, Michigan and Iowa went by. Four races turned into six, and it was all about clawing forward each week, taking it race by race to give the team a chance at NASCAR’s playoffs. (To make the playoffs, a driver has to attempt every race unless NASCAR gives a waiver. Grala missed the Kentucky race after Daytona, which means he’s out of contention this year.)
The fifth race was Chicagoland Speedway, a 1.5-mile oval typical of NASCAR’s national series schedules. The sixth was Daytona International Speedway, a 2.5-mile superspeedway where NASCAR’s required restrictor plates since the late 1980s to down the cars’ horsepower and speeds for safety reasons.
That’s when Grala’s team needed help, because they didn’t have a steel-bodied superspeedway car like NASCAR would require. Eury told Jalopnik the team started calling other teams to make a deal around the Michigan race in June, a month before Daytona. The team wanted to get a Ford, Eury said, and went down the list knowing supplies weren’t high—after all, the car would be obsolete as soon as the race ended.
“We were even asking people, like, ‘Hey, will you let us make one lap in practice in your backup car, and so long as you don’t wreck your primary in practice, will you let us race your backup?’” Grala said.
That didn’t pan out. All of Roush Fenway Racing’s cars were spoken for, Eury said. Penske Racing wrecked the car it took to Talladega earlier in the year and didn’t fix it. Stewart-Haas Racing executive Joe Custer said the team had a car—one he didn’t think highly of—and offered to rent it for a price low enough that Grala said the team more than broke even with the prize money from the race.
Fury Race Cars took the deal, with a big stipulation: to try not to wreck the car at a track known for its huge wrecks.
“[Custer] was like, ‘Look, this car is a show car to me, so I don’t want to have my people have to work on it to repair it and make it back into a show car. So, if you could, just bring it back to me in the shape that it is, and if you turn it over, just bring me a check,’” said Eury, who agreed to fix any damage in the shop.
“In fact, we did end up getting lucky enough that we didn’t have a scratch on the thing,” Grala said. “Not one scratch. We just peeled the wrap off, and we were able to give it right back. It was definitely the most economical race I’ve ever done.”
The car arrived at Fury Race Cars on a Monday in June, with about four working days to get it ready before it was time to haul it to Daytona. That included peeling off layers of old sponsorship wraps plastered on it, which Eury said were so thick his fingers got numb.
“The first one was white and it had Ford on it, and Smithfield, then the next one was blue and green,” said Eury, who counted four in all. “I kept tearing layers off and sending Kaz’s dad pictures, like, ‘Do you like this paint scheme, or do we go to the next one?’”
The fact that the car was wrapped so many times, with more adhesive and potential air holes, showed just how much of an afterthought it was. With how detailed NASCAR’s inspection process is now, Eury said any layer of wrap or adhesive counts, in a bad way, toward overall measurements.
“At Jr. Motorsports, when we had more sponsors, we would pull the full wrap off just so it was always fresh,” Eury said. “But [with this car], they knew they weren’t going to run it unless it was an emergency, so I think that’s why they just kept putting wraps over wraps.”
Eury needed the almost microscopic extra space he got from peeling the wraps off, too, since Grala said he used his five days working on the car to push and poke the body around to his liking. The team wound up putting a new white, black and yellow wrap on, after clearing off the old layers.
With the adjustments, Grala said, Stewart-Haas got “a slightly better body back” than the one the team sent over—despite it not needing top-notch aero while sitting outside of a service station on display.
“It’s funny, because it seems like every crew chief out there always has their own theories to the aero on the superspeedways,” Grala said. “If you give the same car to five crew chiefs, they’re all going to do five different things with it that they think may be small tweaks to make it faster.”
But the body wasn’t the only thing that needed work over that short turnaround time. The car still didn’t have a transmission and the motor was old, so Eury had to replace both before handing it over to Grala.
“From that point, it was pretty much game on,” Eury said.
The game started slowly.
Fury Race Cars only had one car to take the track rather than having a backup if necessary like most other teams do, so Grala took practice carefully and in small chunks.
“The last thing we wanted to do was go out and wreck it in practice,” Grala said. “So, we just took either four or six laps in [first] practice by ourselves, in about two or three different runs. We sat second practice out altogether.”
In his few practice laps, Grala stayed clear of other cars to keep the car out of trouble. Cars race in large packs at Daytona and are extremely aero dependent, so he didn’t have a feel for how his car would actually race.
Qualifying was rained out, and NASCAR lined up the field by owner points. Because of the new team, Grala started 38th.
“Our first laps in the pack, actually feeling the handling of the car, was in the race,” Grala said.
Grala said despite that, the team finally had the car adjusted the way he wanted it by the last half of the race—and he was fine with taking his time to get there.
“These races are easy to go from the back to the front, but really dangerous,” Grala said. “That’s how you often find yourself caught up in the carnage. So, we had to be smart with our strategy to put ourselves into a position where we could miss it.”
By the end, Grala had made it to the front without incident. He was in eighth, and coming to a restart from caution with with seven laps to go. That was the point when he thought to himself, “Alright, we’ve done what we needed to do, we’re in position, we’ve got a shot, so let’s see what we can do with it,” he said.
The feeling didn’t last long.
“Coming to the green for that restart, I felt like I had a right-rear tire going down,” Grala said. He asked another driver next to him to pull up and see if the tire was going down, and the driver said it was. Grala went down pit road for four tires as the rest of the field took the green flag.
Grala left pit road by himself, out of the pack and the draft, which can up car speeds by several miles per hour. (The pole-winning speed for the Talladega Xfinity Series race during single-car qualifying this year was 189.4 mph, while top speeds during the race were around 193 mph.)
Grala was about to go a lap down when another caution came out, sending the race into what NASCAR now calls “overtime”—a two-lap attempt at the finish.
“I was running 24th at the time [of the caution],” Grala said. “With all of those cars that wrecked, I ended up being able to restart 15th.”
Grala went from 15th to sixth during those two laps, eventually getting bumped to fifth when NASCAR uncharacteristically disqualified the original race winner for dipping out of bounds to make a pass.
“Considering our flat tire with only seven laps to go, to come back and finish in the top five was nothing short of extraordinary for us,” Grala said. “Everybody was pumped up.
“And, you never know. Had we been able to restart eighth there at the very end, who’s to say? We could have been in that big one, or we could have had a shot at the win. But I guess we’ll never know.”
He, Eury and the rest of the team will also probably never know what happens to that old, discounted show car they raced to a fifth-place finish at Daytona. (Stewart-Haas didn’t get back to Jalopnik when we asked where exactly it would end up, and Eury didn’t ask at all.)
Fury Race Cars didn’t pull a deal together to run the next race at Kentucky, and started peeling the wrap off when the team got back to the shop on Monday.
“By the end of the day, the car was back to bare metal body,” Grala said. “by the next day, Tuesday, I believe, the car was back on its way to Stewart-Haas.
“That was where the story left off for me.”
It left off there for Eury, too. He said the old Mustang that could was “meant to be,” but that he’s not at all sentimental or invested in finding out where it ends up.
“Nah,” Eury said. “It’s just one of those deals. It’s like, that’s what we do. We build cars, we take them, we race them. You always hope the next car you build will be better than [the last] one, so you never get tied to a car.”