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Eyes on Xfinity: Gray Gaulding Moves Past Martinsville, Brings UFC to Talladega

Gray Gaulding made headlines two weekends ago for all the wrong reasons.

The last time the NASCAR Xfinity Series was on track, Gaulding, driver of the No. 52 Chevrolet for Jimmy Means Racing, tangled on and off the track at Martinsville Speedway with Joe Graf Jr., who drives for Gaulding’s former employer, SS Green Light Racing.

Gaulding and sponsor Panini America unveiled a new paint scheme Tuesday (April 20) for Talladega Superspeedway that highlights UFC athletes and their new line of trading cards. The last time the Virginia native highlighted an athlete of another sport was eventual Super Bowl champion and MVP Patrick Mahomes, who graced Gaulding’s hood in late 2019. Gaulding finished sixth that day at Bristol Motor Speedway.

This week, Gaulding discussed how he plans to move forward from a garage fight with Graf, entering one of his best racetracks at Talladega Superspeedway, the pressure that comes with promoting and representing another sport’s top athletes at the track and an early season evaluation without a top-20 finish after seven races.

Below is an edited version of his interview with Frontstretch:

Zach Sturniolo, Frontstretch: Congratulations on this new scheme with Panini. I know it’s an exciting one here — you get superstars of UFC with Jon Jones, Amanda Nunes and a couple other stars on the hood of this car, coinciding with UFC 261: Usman vs. Masvidal 2 — at one of your best racetracks. How excited are you to get this scheme on the racetrack?

Gray Gaulding: Yeah, man, I’m super, super excited, obviously. Being able to co-brand with UFC and the stars that are on the car, there’s definitely no pressure for me (laughs). The men and women on the car are definitely some of the biggest names in UFC, but I just want to give a shout out and thank Panini America and UFC just for being able to give me the opportunity to be a spokesman for Panini. I’ve been a spokesman for them for the past three years and it’s been an amazing partnership. It’s really nice to have that type of sponsor that is willing to go over and above to bring new, different sports in our sport of NASCAR. And I think it’s a big thing for NASCAR to be able to have UFC come and be on a race car and be part of the Xfinity Series.

Sturniolo: You’ve made the most of your opportunities at the superspeedways, no question, with two second-place finishes, one apiece at Talladega and Daytona International Speedway. As you head into this weekend, what is it that you feel makes you a successful superspeedway racer?

Gaulding: That’s a great question. A lot of people ask me that, and […] it’s almost like if you get a road course driver to go to a road course, no matter what he’s driving, they feel confident that they can go out and do it, because that’s what they enjoy. And I’m not saying I don’t enjoy anything other than speedway racing, but I think for me, it’s all about having fun. I think for me, being in the draft, three- and four-wide. I’m an adrenaline junkie. I love that feeling. I like that feel of being in the car, feeling the draft, feeling the aerodynamics and obviously the car being at 200+ mph. And I’m very comfortable with that.

And over the years, I think the best thing I’ve done as a driver is I’ve really worked hard on my craft. This wasn’t something I just woke up and said, ‘Hey, I’m a good speedway racer.’ It was something I had to add a take a lot of time and do a lot of homework, a lot of film. Just to throw a couple names out there, you look at guys like Denny Hamlin. Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano is another good one. I feel like those guys, they normally dominate the races. And I feel what they do at home, and what they do in their spare time to prepare for those type of races, they go into it wanting to lead every lap and kick butt and get the victory.

You look at some guys that just [approach it as], ‘Whatever happens happens,’ which is fine because that’s just speedway racing. It’s a crapshoot every [time]. So I think for me, it’s trying to almost play the race out in my head. And if I think that I’m in a bad area with maybe guys, I don’t really feel comfortable with the way they drive on speedways, then I’ll get out of there or I’ll try to pass them quick and get away from them to get away from an opportunity of a crash happening.

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Sturniolo: You mentioned guys you might be uncomfortable with around the racetrack and I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about Martinsville and Joe Graf Jr. Have you guys spoken since everything happened a couple of weeks ago? And do you expect to be raced any differently or to race them any differently, especially knowing that it happened to happen with your former team?

Gaulding: Yeah, we spoke and we had a great conversation — myself, my team owner [Jimmy Means], [SS Green Light Racing owner] Bobby Dotter, along with Joe and the series director. I think we left on a good note. I don’t want this to carry over because my thing is it’s not fair. It’s not fair for our sponsors, it’s not fair for my team owner, Jimmy Means, and it’s not fair for Joe and his team. And Bobby Dotter, I have a lot of respect for his race team. My career wouldn’t be where it’s at today without Bobby Dotter. And it wasn’t anything — I wouldn’t call it jealousy; it had nothing to do with that. It was tempers ran high at a short track, which they always do. And I didn’t agree with what he did to me on the track, and I just repaid the favor. And unfortunately, that ended their day.

If I could do it all over again, I probably would have said some things to take back that I had said previously, but you live and learn. I’ve never really been in that situation, and I think I it was just one of those heat-of-the-moment things. We’re all competitors. I hate to lose, and I hate to get run into. I feel like every race I’m out there, my career is on the line, like I have to perform no matter what track, what team, whatever’s going on.

And another thing too is I’m very hard on myself, and I’m so competitive. Sometimes, the competitive edge might go a level above and, like I said, I hope this doesn’t carry over. And I do think it won’t change anything though; I have respect for those guys. But at the end of the day, I have to do what’s best for my team and my sponsors to go out and perform. […] I’m not gonna let anybody walk all over me or do the things that were done to me. I got to stick up for myself, because if I don’t, then people are going to try to pick on me, and I’m not the type of guy to get picked on. So I do think we came to a good conclusion.

Sturniolo: Seven races into 2021 running the full season with Jimmy Means Racing, how would you evaluate the season so far? And what, in your opinion, needs to improve as you approach this summer stretch — looking at the next two months as opposed to these first two months?

Gaulding: I think we’ve just I think we’ve had some growing pains. It’s definitely a tough situation when you’re dealing with with a new team, new people, new team owner, and you don’t have any track time until they show up to the race. And my team is working extremely hard. I tip my hat to Jimmy Means. I’ve really fell in love with his hard work, the way he does things. He’s a cool guy to be around. He’s been around a long time. I look at him as being a pioneer of the sport and I really respect him, and me being the young buck, a loud mouth and aggressive and I want to go out and get it. He’s more laid-back. He’s 70 years old. He’s seen guys like me come and go, but I think his leadership and guidance and the talks that we’ve had over the last few weeks have really — we’ve entered that close friendship now of driver and team owner. And that’s super important. When you’re in NASCAR, you have to have that relationship, and I think we’ve we’ve built a great one. And I’m thankful for Tim Brown, my crew chief and all my guys that work here at the shop. We’re a very, very small organization, but we don’t let that we don’t let that bother us.

At the beginning of the year, I had people saying, ‘Why is Gray joining Jimmy Means Racing?’ and blah, blah, blah. To me, it’s about the people. It’s not about how many people; it’s not about how many wins you have. It’s about when I’m able to come in the shop and talk racing and really gel and get that raw race feel. That’s what I live for. And I got that this year.

And to speak a little bit about what’s happened, we’ve had a lot of bad luck. I mean, we’ve had things that [have] just been out of our hands […] getting caught in a wreck or mechanical failures. And we had a great car at Martinsville and we had a carburetor issue, something off the wall. I mean, we’ve just had a lot of things happen out of our control. I think for us to keep that morale up is what I try to tell my guys, after a bad week at the track, we just got to hit the reset button. We’ve got to go back, evaluate the issue. Hopefully it doesn’t happen again. We’ll try to prepare maybe something as far as maybe not letting it happen again, or how can we learn from this? So for me driving every week is a learning process. […]

Even though we didn’t have the best result at Martinsville, before we got rained out on Friday night (April 9), we drove from 39th to 11th. We pretty much started dead last and we drove under green. So nobody can take that away from us. I thought we had a great car. But unfortunately when it got rained out our setup, we struggled a little bit on Sunday. But all in all, we kept fighting and doing everything we could and we still got some points. […]

And that’s what we need to focus on right now is just gaining points no matter how we have to do we have to do that. But I think the next two months are gonna be very important. I think we’ve learned a lot and I’m really looking forward to going back to some of the tracks we’ve already been to, and I love road racing. We had a top-10 car for sure at Daytona (International Speedway road course) until I lost my brakes and got caught in that late-race incident.

There’s a lot of positives, but there is a few negatives that we need to work on. But it’s always a work in process. We’re just gonna keep fighting and keep working. That’s all we can do.

The Ag-Pro 300 at Talladega Superspeedway is Saturday (April 24) at 4 p.m. on FOX.

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