TALLADEGA, Ala. – Last year, Joe Graf, Jr. came to Talladega Superspeedway as a raw, untested rookie.
His experience had been gained on the short tracks of the Midwest and the Northeast, and two ARCA Menards Series starts at Nashville and Salem. He had no experience in the draft at Talladega, or any experience on a track longer than a mile for that matter.
“When I arrived at Talladega and got on the track for the first time, it wasn’t anything like I had ever experienced in my life,” Graf said. “It was amazing. I was gleaming ear to ear even after getting out of the car. You have to remember – before that point I had been on mainly short tracks with very big track experience.
“Then I go to Talladega and I was like a kid on Christmas day. Definitely something that will stick with me for a long, long time.”
Graf left Talladega that day the runner-up finisher, but that notation in the record book belies the significance of his efforts.
Graf qualified seventeenth and worked his way towards the front through the 76-lap duel on Talladega’s famous 33-degree banking. By the time the field was in line for a one-lap overtime dash to the checkered, Graf was lined up alongside race leader Zane Smith. Graf received drafting help from Michael Self down the backstretch, but by the time they hit the tri-oval Graf and Smith and broken away and were engaged in a fender-banging duel for the win. When they flashed across the stripe, it was a photo finish, with the computer scoring monitors registering a margin of 0.000, a statistical dead heat.
A review of the video camera at the line showed Smith ahead by just a matter of inches, almost imperceptible to the naked eye at full speed. Graf would be forced to settle for second.
“It still hurts,” Graf said with a chuckle. “It was amazing for our Chad Bryant Racing team to be in that position and avoid all the late race carnage. On that last start, I had a good restart and my spotter (Brian Crammer) was keeping me well aware of what I needed to do. It was five minutes full of exhilaration, excitement and disappointment.
“I hate that we ended up second, but at the end of the day – it’s still cool to be a part of ARCA history.”
Graf returns to Talladega with a full season of ARCA Menards Series experience under his belt. He even evened the score with Smith, winning his own fender-banging duel to the finish at Berlin Raceway in August. After a frustrating run at Daytona, a sister track to Talladega, Graf is ready to return and pick up the final piece of the puzzle from last season.
“We feel very confident that we can come back to Talladega and contend for the win,” he said. “We have the same car we had at Daytona. Chad (Bryant, crew chief and team owner) have been working hard to get our Ford Fusion ready for the race.
“You’d like to think we can come back and duplicate or better our finish from last year – but let’s get real. It’s Talladega. You have to be prepared for anything. For us, we’d love to win. It would be a huge boost for us and help in our hunt to get back in this championship fight.”
Graf’s day at Daytona was ruined by overheating issues, a problem caused when a plastic bag from the grandstands landed on his grille. To raise awareness about the problem’s plastic pollution is causing, Graf and his sponsors will award one lucky fan with a reusable shopping bag filled with $1,000 in cash after Talladega.
“We’re proud of the sweepstakes,” Graf noted. “It’s taken a lot of work by my team and my marketing partner EAT SLEEP RACE. But when you think about it, they are giving away cash money to someone for a good cause. It’s humbling for me to be able to announce the winner and look forward to doing stuff like this in the future.”