DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Though he hasn’t raced regularly in the NASCAR Xfinity Series this year, when Gray Gaulding has been on the race track he’s made his voice heard loud and clear.
Gaulding raced to a career-best-tying runner-up finish during Friday’s Wawa 250 powered by Coca-Cola at Daytona Int’l Speedway, sticking in the lead draft all night long and dodging a crash between final-lap leaders A.J. Allmendinger and Ross Chastain to finish behind winner Justin Haley.
The 22-year-old’s second-place effort came on the heels of an eighth-place finish during his season debut at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in June. He was also a runner-up at Talladega in April of 2019.
“I came here to win, and we just came up one spot short,” Gaulding said. “What an ending. I hope all the fans back at home [enjoyed it] — I really miss the fans in the grandstands.
“To have a shot to win at Daytona and finish second; I’m a kid from a small town who dreamed about being here and sat in the grandstands as a kid watching these races. I’m just so, so appreciative.”
Making his Friday result even more impressive was the fact that Gaulding’s deal to run for Bobby Dotter and SS Green Light Racing in the No. 07 Chevrolet came together less than a week before the race.
He was eighth at the white flag, but Gaulding sneaked through the chaos when the nine-car lead pack came flying apart after contact between Allmendinger and Chastain sparked a sudden maelstrom.
“I definitely had a wild seat tonight,” he said. “I played offense all night. This is a one-off deal, Walk Ons said they wanted to put me in and Bobby [Dotter] said, ‘Let’s do it.’
“I’m super pumped for everyone who believed in me. I actually wasn’t in this race one week ago so to show up here and finish second, I showed everybody that I can do it,” Gaulding continued. “Hopefully, I can get back in this series full time.”
Gaulding’s pair of superspeedway top 10s this year with Dotter underscores how impressive he’s been in underfunded equipment in the Xfinity Series in recent years.
He put Dotter 13th in points during a full season in 2019, nearly winning at Talladega and racking up four top-10 and 17 top-15 finishes in 33 races, consistently running against some of the top teams in the series.
However, Gaulding felt Saturday’s race at Daytona was a cut above any of his impressive runs from the year prior. He said that’s because the SS Green Light team is even stronger now than it was then.
“Actually, I feel like this race went a lot better (than Talladega in 2019), really,” Gaulding told SPEED SPORT. “I felt like I struggled a little bit to get a little track position early in the race, but most of all, I feel like I was a contender all the way through. I led laps, almost won a stage, so I felt like I put myself in position a lot better than I did at Talladega. And it was way more aggressive.
“I felt like I was a little bit timid last year, but very aggressive obviously at the end. Tonight, though, I just really went after it. It was a balance; I made sure the moves that I did do were smart, but I really played offense all night,” he continued. “What was really fun about it is that I just let it all hang out and let the cards fall. If I gave myself a chance, great, but if I didn’t, I knew I hadn’t left anything on the table.
“Talladega was amazing, don’t get me wrong. Anytime you have a chance to win a NASCAR race, you have to be appreciative and it is pretty darn cool. But this is Daytona; there’s nowhere else like it.”
Knowing he doesn’t have anything full time lined up at this point, Friday’s strong run made for an emotional moment for Gaulding after climbing from his car.
“We fight every day to stay here,” he said. “I’m just thankful for my family. This is the World Center of Racing. It’s special, man. Kids dream about having a chance to win at Daytona. I’ve been dreaming about this, like I said earlier, since I was five years old in kindergarten writing about it in my kindergarten class. It just means a whole lot to me and I know my team has had a tough year this year. It was nice to come back and perform like this for all of them, because they deserve it.
“I can’t believe it. I hope we can turn it into something for the future.”