By Dustin Albino

Joe Graf Jr. knew for the 2023 season he had to invest in himself. He believes now is the right time for the best opportunity of his racing career. 

“I feel like as a driver, you always have to bet on yourself,” Graf told over the weekend at Circuit of The Americas. “It‘s not just as a driver, it‘s as much as anything in life. I‘m not a big gambler, but when I do gamble it‘s always on myself because I have more control over that outcome.”

On Christmas Eve last year, SS GreenLight Racing announced Graf would not return to the team after spending the previous three seasons piloting one of its entries. Both sides believed it was time for a switch. 

In 88 races together, Graf scored a pair of top-10 finishes at Talladega Superspeedway, the last of which came last April. But he believed his time with the team had run its course. 

“It was difficult leaving,” Graf mentioned. “I was over there a long time and still get along with all of those guys really well. Bobby Dotter (team owner) is a great guy and I miss some of the stuff over there and seeing them every week. But sometimes, it‘s time to make a change.”

A change Graf indeed made. In late January, he was announced as the primary driver for up to 28 races in RSS Racing’s third effort. He joined a family-operated team that has made the playoffs with Ryan Sieg in three out of the past four years. Sieg recorded a career-high 13 top-10 finishes last season. 

The following week, Graf had a surprising announcement that he would pilot Joe Gibbs Racing’s All-Star No. 19 entry in a handful of races. 

“I just want to keep getting better every week,” Graf said, “We‘ve had some really good runs here already [this season].” 

Graf, who piloted the No. 39 Ford in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway, remained loyal to Sieg throughout the race. And when the caution came out on the final lap, both drivers were inside the top 10, with Graf earning a personal best finish of seventh. 

“That was the first [superspeedway] race of my career where I had a teammate that actually worked with me throughout the day,” Graf added. “Ryan and I were working together at the end, and I think that was a big part of why we were able to get those results.”

The following week at Auto Club Speedway, Graf began his tenure with JGR, led by veteran crew chief Jason Ratcliff. He finished one position shy of earning consecutive top 10 finishes for the first time in his career. He did, however, finish ahead of his upstart teammate, Sammy Smith. 

“A lot of work,” Graf said about inking the five-race deal with JGR. “You have to be able to get the opportunity, but then you have to be able to find the right partners and sponsors to bring that opportunity together. There were a lot of moving parts and I was really grateful that I was able to put it together.

“I‘ve had some good runs here and there over the years, but I haven‘t been in that caliber of equipment, arguably ever, but at least since 2019 (with Richard Childress Racing). I really just wanted to get over there and work with a group like that and see what I‘m able to do.”

Compared to 2019 when Graf ran three races for Richard Childress Racing — and failed to qualify for two races; one with RCR, the other with Kaulig Racing — he believes he’s ready for the opportunity with JGR. 

JGR management also believes Graf will be a valuable asset to the No. 19 team in 2023.

“Joe is committed to success, which is something we are looking for in all of our drivers,” Steve DeSouza, executive vice president of the Xfinity Series and development for JGR, said in a team release in February. “We are anticipating a solid season from the No. 19 team and Joe‘s addition to the driver lineup will help that team be competitive for the owner‘s championship this season.”

Graf’s second start in the No. 19 Toyota came at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a track he says he has a love-hate relationship with. He finished 15th, and for the first time in his career he‘s earned three straight top-15 finishes. 

“I felt like [Las Vegas] was mediocre,” Graf said. “I was happier with Fontana, but I‘m super excited to go to Richmond with them [this] week.”

In addition to Richmond, Graf has races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway on tap with JGR. Of those, New Hampshire sticks out the most because he’s been particularly strong in the past and was fifth in practice last season with SS GreenLight. 

Between the two teams, Graf’s preparation process is fairly similar. He does, however, get simulator time when he drives for JGR.

“I have a lot of confidence in both groups,” he said. “And ultimately the goal every week is to go to the racetrack every week and get the best result that we‘re capable of.”

Since 2019, Graf has gained experience in different scenarios, despite being primarily with one team. Now, he’s ready to be more competitive and through six races, he has an average finish of 19.8, nearly five positions better than his previous best average for a full season.

“I put a lot of eggs in that basket this year,” Graf said. “I‘m super grateful to my partners for allowing me to do it and hopefully, we can make the most of it.

“I just want to keep getting better, keep learning and I want to be running up front. By the end of this stint with JGR, I want to be able to run in the top five and hopefully contend for a win. That‘s the goal.”

The Xfinity Series heads to Richmond Raceway, where JGR has 10 wins as an organization, including Ty Gibbs being victorious last year.

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