The last five years for Gray Gaulding have been filled with a whirlwind of emotions. So this year, his emphasis is getting his career back on track with Jimmy Means Racing.
In 2017, Gaulding, then 19, jumped to the NASCAR Cup Series with BK Racing, with his first event coming in the second race of the year at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He ran for BK until mid-June before missing a handful of races. He finished the year running 27 races, splitting time between BK and Premium Motorsports.
The following year, Gaudling bounced around between BK, StarCom Racing and Rick Ware Racing. But 2019 was his breakout year, running the full Xfinity Series schedule with SS Green Light Racing, finishing 13th in the championship standings. That year, he finished runner-up at Talladega Superspeedway — the team’s best finish in its history — plus a sixth-place effort at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Gaulding felt his career was on an upward trajectory.
“I feel like not only did I prove a lot to myself, but I think I proved a lot to a lot of people,” Gaulding recently told Jayski.com of his 2019 season. “My career has had a lot of highs and lows, and I would definitely say 2019 was my career year.
“I think we shocked the world on that, and that makes me feel really good.”
But the offseason came, and Gaulding was bounced out due to a lack of funding, something that’s been a detriment throughout his career. He was replaced by Ray Black Jr., as he moved over from the No. 08 car to make room for Joe Graf Jr., who was new to the organization.
Ultimately, Gaulding ran five Xfinity races with the team in 2020, scoring another second-place result, this time at Daytona International Speedway.
Leading into the 2021 season, Gaulding thought he had a deal on the table. So when on vacation in Florida over the offseason, he declined a call from Jimmy Means, team owner of Jimmy Means Racing. Means was looking for a driver to pilot the No. 52 Chevrolet after Kody Vanderwal departed from the team following the 2020 season.
Gaulding simply put it that he didn’t want to lead on Means, someone he respected.
But when Gaulding’s options fell through, he needed to know if Means still wanted him to run a full season in 2021.
“Jimmy called me a couple years ago to drive, but I already had prior commitments,” Gaulding said. “I saved his number, got to know him over the phone and just said, ‘Thanks for the opportunity, just can’t do it right now.’ We stayed in touch and Jimmy called me about three weeks before Christmas [last] year. I looked at it, and was like, ‘Jimmy Means.’ I declined the call and wrote up a very nice message to send to him because, at the time, I was in the process of working another opportunity to go drive for someone else.
“The ’ol saying is, when one door closes, another door open. I think that says a lot about what happened. The deal that I was working on fell through. I texted Jimmy a month before the season and was like, ‘Hey, is your ride still open?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ The next day, I went to his shop and we started shooting the bull.”
Instantly, Gaulding was attracted to Means’ throwback, old-school personality. After all, Means, a longtime veteran in the NASCAR industry, isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.
Though now at the ripe age of 23, Means believes Gaulding’s prior experience in NASCAR is what the team had to have in order to progress.
Means said, “With that age and experience level that he has, that’s something we needed going forward to try to stay in the sport and build our program.”
Gaulding, who has made a living running for small teams, was excited for the opportunity to restart with Means’ team.
“People might look at Jimmy like just a small team, but he’s been around a long time and knows his way,” Gaulding added. “I think that really sold it for me.”
On paper, it hasn’t been a stellar start to the season. The No. 52 sits tied for 38th in the owner standings, while Gaulding ranks tied for 34th in the driver standings. He is, however, just 23 points below 25th in points.
Gaulding, who doesn’t necessarily believe in racing luck, admits he’s had none this season. The No. 52 car was caught up in a wreck in the season opener at Daytona and had a secondary throttle leakage at Atlanta Motor Speedway, which is something Means said hasn’t happened to him in 50 years of racing. This past weekend at Talladega, the No. 52 team had another mechanical failure and finished 34th.
“It’s been really hard,” Gaulding said of his season. “I had very high expectations, which I think we’re going to get there, but it’s just going to take some time. There’s not a whole lot you can do about it, but as a team I think we’re building in the right direction.”
Means put it pretty bluntly about where he thinks the No. 52 stacks up right now.
“We’re at the bottom looking up,” he said. “Unforeseen things have happened that, unfortunately, if you stay around racing long enough will happen at some point in time.”
But Gaulding is accustomed to adversity much worse than what he’s going through in 2021. For the last handful of years, he’s been fighting to stay relevant, even though he’d shown flashes of true potential.
Internally, that’s been a battle for the Virginia native. There’s been times where he’s questioned if another opportunity would arise.
“What keeps me going is, I feel that if I ever get that big-time opportunity with one of those [big] teams, I really think I can be a superstar,” Gaulding said. “Not in a cocky way. The way I hold myself, the way I feel my talent is and most of all, how bad I want it.
“There have been a lot of struggles where I do ask myself, ‘How much longer can I do this? How much longer can I put up with the heartaches, the ups and the downs and mental state of going from 0 to 100 all the time?’ As long as I can keep that in check and keep working hard, I think my day will come. If my day doesn’t come, I can’t say I didn’t give it 110%.”
Gaulding has thought about the potential of not racing at all. But he believes his passion will shine through, noting he would be dejected having to get a regular job.
It’s a tough conversation to have with oneself.
“You look in the mirror and wonder, ‘Where am I going to be in the next five years, four years, three years?” he said. “What brings me back is the passion. Through the good days and the bad is the passion I have for racing. This is all I’ve known since I was three years old. I don’t know anything else. If my career was over today and I had to go get a real job working at an office doing something I would be miserable. I would either get fired or quit in like two or three weeks.
“I love what I do. I love the racing part, but I hate the business part. I caught myself beating myself up so often, and I’m just like, ‘How can I keep doing this?’ The answer to all questions is the passion and the drive to make it is why I’m still here.”
Though having an average finish of 28.5 this season, Gaulding is focused on the opportunity to drive the No. 52 car as a restart.
All he wants is to be competitive.
“After last year, I needed a reset,” he said. “I needed to get back to where I could feel competitive again and feel that I bring something to the table as a driver and what my skill sets are.
“My career has been a bit of a roller coaster, good and bad, which is OK and makes it fun to talk about because there have been a lot of highs and lows. But the lows I always felt was being on the couch, being at home.”
Thus far, Means is stunned by the ill wills that have dampened his team’s season. He’s purchased competitive engines, sticker tires, but the team is still struggling for solid finishes.
Because he has everything in place, Means does believe the No. 52 team will turn ship on the season.
“My [past] drivers have finished in the top 20 in driver points,” he said. “We’ve got the equipment to do that with. It’s not that we’re lacking much in anything to put your finger on. Naturally we need tires, which we’re doing that more than I ever have in my career, even when I drove. We’re going to weather the storm and pedal to the metal.”
The Xfinity Series has an off week before returning to the track at Darlington Raceway on May 8. Gaulding has just one start at the track Too Tough to Tame in Xfinity, placing 15th in 2019. In two Cup starts at Darlington, he has a best finish of 32nd.