Gray Gaulding is currently competing in his first full-time season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, driving the No. 08 SS Green Light Chevrolet. The 21-year-old has one top-five finish, a second at Talladega Superspeedway, to go along with three top 10s, gaining experience after years running the Cup Series part-time.
As the Xfinity Series heads to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for its regular-season finale, Gaulding is the first driver below the playoff cut line. He must win this race in order to make the postseason after spending most of the year on the outside looking in.
In the 2019 Indiana 250 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Gaulding finished on the lead lap in 13th, impressive at that track considering the team’s current funding. Prior to the race, Gaulding talked to Frontstretch about trying to make the playoffs and how money makes the difference in NASCAR these days.
Mark Kristl, Frontstretch: What are your thoughts competing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway? Should NASCAR race somewhere else?
Gray Gaulding: I really don’t care. No matter where I’m going each week, I feel like I can run well anywhere. If I was really being critical, I would probably say somewhere like Bristol for the last chance to make the playoffs. It’s a cool place cause there’s so much history here. As a playoff driver, like the Cup guys that do make it, to take pictures after the race on the bricks, saying you’re in the playoffs, that’s a pretty cool moment. This is the world center of racing along with Daytona [International Speedway]. Daytona and Indianapolis are where every race car driver wants to be. To end it here [for Cup], it’s cool.
Kristl: Have you been to the Indy 500 before?
Gaulding: I never have. I’ve always been in Charlotte [Motor Speedway] racing the Coke 600 the past couple of years. Eventually, in my career, I would love to run the Indianapolis 500. I’ve run the Daytona 500, I’ve run the Brickyard, I’ve run the Bristol night race and Southern 500. I’ve run all the crown jewels. To add this to the list in a little bit of a different style with Indy would be pretty special.
Kristl: This is your first full-time season in NASCAR. How is that compared to racing part-time in previous seasons?
Gaulding: It’s 100 times better because you’re able to get in a rhythm, you’re able to get in a groove. Me, my crew chief, and my team, SS Green Light Racing, we’ve worked on our cars and our program throughout the whole year. From where we were a lot earlier in the season to now, it’s a been a huge jump. From where we were to now as far as speed, we’re qualifying well, we’re racing well, everything’s really going good. For me, as a driver, to be able to sit in the same car, same team, and same people around me week in and week out, it’s a game-changer. Compared to when I was running part-time, you can’t really get in a groove. It’s basically impossible because you’re not racing in every race.
Kristl: At the moment, you’re the first driver below the playoff cut line. One reason is you’ve scored fewer stage points than Brandon Jones, but you often finish better than him. What are your thoughts on that?
Gaulding: It’s the reality of it. In this era of racing, you have to get stage points. For us being a small organization, to run top 10 at any point in the race is tough. We’re racing against the top guys, top teams, which I feel like we’re capable, but if your car and equipment aren’t capable of doing it, it’s just not going to happen.
We’ve been close. A couple weeks ago, we finished sixth at Bristol [Motor Speedway] which was big. Stage points have definitely hurt us and put us in the box that we’re in. Now, we got nothing to lose. If we want to stay out, if it’s about to rain, stay out with five laps to go, that’s where we’re at, we’re in Hail Mary mode. We’re giving everything we have, and if we come up short, we can’t say we didn’t lay it out there.
Kristl: How then do you feel with Cup Series regulars racing in the Xfinity Series? Perhaps they’re taking away possible stage points and finishing positions from you?
The thing is, if everybody’s goal is to get to the Cup Series level… I raced in the Cup Series when I was 18 or 19. I know how good those guys are just by watching them and learning from them. But to do it down here in the Xfinity Series, as a driver, to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. Those guys coming down actually helps and gets us ready for the next step. I don’t mind it at all. Yeah, you might not get as many wins cause of those guys, but eventually, when you do beat them, I can promise you it’ll feel pretty darn good.
Kristl: That’s a fair assessment.
You only have 13 lead-lap finishes thus far this season. What do you and/or your team need to do better?
Gaulding: Money. That’s about the most honest answer, money. It boils down to funding. The budget we have this year is not even close to half as some of these bigger teams. The highlights we’ve had is what we go off of. Finishing second [at Talladega Superspeedway], we made the Dash 4 Cash, we’re fighting for the playoffs. When you look at this team, where it was last year, they could barely finish top 20. I’ve come in and done my job.
My team has done a great job of getting used to my feel of my race car as to how I like things and want things. There’s always room to improve. In a lot of those races, we didn’t even have all the tires. When you put on 15-20 lappers, you’re definitely going to lose a lap. There’s nothing you can do about it. Those guys are two seconds faster because they’re going on fresh rubber. As of late, we’ve been able to put together a lot of really good finishes and got a lot of good momentum going. Hopefully, we can just keep building on it.
Kristl: How has the balance been between racing on the weekend but unsure of the sponsor situation during the next week?
Gaulding: It’s been a grind all year. I tell people all the time, on the weekends I play race car driver and during the week I’m like a salesman. I really work my tail off with my dad, our management team SMG (Standout Management Group). We’re just a few guys who really try to chase a dream. It’s not easy. It ain’t easy for anybody. We don’t expect it to be easy.
Where our sport is today and bringing in funding, it’s not as easy as decades ago. When you ask someone to write a check for a half a million dollars, during the ’90s, my team owner (Bobby Dotter) told me he could run a full Busch Series year on decent equipment. Now, half a million won’t even get you 10 races. It’s a big margin to fill, but I feel like we’ve done a great job.
We got a sponsor 48 hours before Dover, Worldwide Safety Consulting, and Panini has been a huge player this year. It started out as a one-race deal, and then they got to know me and learn and see what we’re about, and it’s turned into a 10-15 race deal. We’re pretty thankful with how everything has worked out so far.
Kristl: Are you good for sponsors for the rest of the season?
Gaulding: We’re still trying to fill in some gaps. Panini has been a huge player as far as my tires, they got me the engine at Talladega, and we’ve had a few other people who’ve been great partners to us all year. Looking forward to the rest of this year, we’re still not sure. Going into next year, we got some good plans and I look forward to continuing these relationships.
Kristl: You’re 13th in the point standings and your teammate Ray Black Jr. is in 16th. What is the difference as to why you’ve been better than him this season?
Gaulding: We’ve been better than him pretty much the whole year. I don’t really know Ray all that well. I don’t even really consider us teammates. We don’t really share info. It’s not your normal teammates situation. I know his crew really well. They’re really good guys. With Ray’s deal, we focus on our deal and they focus on theirs. I normally don’t see him that much.
Kristl: Really, no shared info or anything?
Gaulding: No, if I’m being honest, me and his crew chief talk. I think I’ve talked to Ray maybe briefly a few times this year. His personality is a little bit quiet, I think he is just a quiet guy. There’s no hard feelings, it just hasn’t happened. I do my thing and he does his thing. If they have a good run, good for them.
Bobby (Dotter) has been the best team owner I’ve ever driven for. Just being a team player, he never puts himself first. He puts everybody around him first and that’s why he’s been able to have such a successful run. Bobby has been a family friend and a mentor to me my whole career. With Bobby, it’s more of a friendship than I’m the driver and he’s the owner.
If I have an issue, I go to him. If he has an issue, he goes to me. That’s why successful relationships happen – when you have that personal bond, which we’ve had since I was eight years old. I knew Bobby when I first moved to Charlotte to race.
Kristl: To confirm, you are going to return to this team next year?
Gaulding: That’s the plan. Obviously, there are a lot of details we need to get worked out. We’ve got plenty of time before the offseason hits.
I want to be back here and if we raise a little bit more sponsorship money, we can beat these big teams. We’ve already done it a few times this year. I think we can do it more on a consistent basis. Having ECR engines, every single tire during a race weekend, and maybe buy a few newer cars cause our cars aren’t that new. That would definitely help. I’m living in the moment for now, but I think I will be back next year.
Kristl: Do you have a Cup Series pit crew for at least companion races?
Gaulding: Yes, we have a team from Stewart-Haas Racing. I know a few guys pit on Sunday but some do not. Some are basically in training for their program.
But my pit crew does a great job. I appreciate Stewart-Haas Racing for being so kind and letting them get more reps on my car. Not only does it help me because they’re talented, it helps them get more reps and when they do get that call to go race on Sunday, they’re ready to go.
Kristl: I read in an article you like collecting sports memorabilia. What’s one of your favorite pieces in your collection?
Gaulding: The coolest thing I have is actually at my dad’s house. I’m a big (Dallas) Cowboys fan and I was able to meet Tony Romo in Las Vegas. He signed a Cowboys helmet and there were a couple other players on it as well. That’s my team and I grew up loving Tony Romo cause of the Cowboys and the type of guy he is. To have that up in the house and look at it every day is pretty cool.
Kristl: Considering you’re a NASCAR driver, any neat NASCAR memorabilia?
Gaulding: I got a lot of trading cards from the 1970s and 1980s. The coolest thing I have as far as NASCAR was given to me by a family friend. He and my grandfather are very close. He came over to the house last year and he gave me a picture. It’s Dale Earnhardt when he drove for [Rod] Osterlund, the No. 2 car, the blue and yellow car when he won Rookie of the Year. It’s a picture of him standing at Daytona in the infield and he actually signed the photo in pen. It’s super easy to see it’s Dale Earnhardt’s signature. He signed it in 1979. He won Rookie of the Year that year and the next year he won the championship. To have that before Dale Earnhardt was “The Intimidator”, he was just a guy grinding and he signed it.