|ALL PHOTOS: Brock Beard|
by Brock Beard
Gray Gaulding picked up the 4th last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Sunday’s Production Alliance Group 300 at the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California when his #08 North South Machinery / Panini Ford crashed after 26 of 150 laps.
The finish, which came in Gaulding’s 70th series start, was his first of the season and first in a XFINITY Series race since October 9, 2021 at the Charlotte “Roval,” 39 races ago. In the XFINITY Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 7th for the #08, the 162nd for Ford, and the 375th from a crash. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 22nd for the #08, the 1,003rd for Ford, and the 1,319th from a crash.
This year sees Gaulding reunite with team owner Bobby Dotter at SS-Green Light Racing, a combination that led to impressive results back in 2019. Back then, Gaulding had transitioned back to the XFINITY Series after three lackluster seasons in Cup for multiple underfunded teams. At the time, Gaulding had made just eight starts in XFINITY and had only twice finished better than 33rd. But after a 34th-place finish in the ’19 opener at Daytona, Gaulding took 16th in Atlanta and for the next 21 races would finish worse than that just three times – a streak of 21 consecutive finishes inside the Top 20. The highlight came at Talladega, where Gaulding came just 0.127 second short of besting the fleet Richard Childress entry of current Cup regular Tyler Reddick. Gaulding narrowly missed a spot in the Playoffs, and ranked 13th in points – best of all non-Playoff contenders.
Since 2019, SS-Green Light Racing has scored its first win, which came at this same Fontana track last year with Cup regular Cole Custer behind the wheel of the #07. But Gaulding has again fought to regain both his full-season ride and consistency from 2019. In 2020, Gaulding finished runner-up on a superspeedway again – this time at Daytona, and behind another current Cup star in Justin Haley – and made a few Cup starts of his own for Rick Ware Racing. He then struggled with both Jimmy Means Racing and Mike Harmon Racing, at times earning a solid finish, but often falling out with mechanical issues. With Joe Graf, Jr. moving onto a split schedule between Joe Gibbs Racing and RSS Racing, the opportunity presented itself for Gaulding to come home. The pair started off solid in Daytona, leading a lap in last week’s race en route to a 20th-place finish. Next came Fontana.
With practice and qualifying washed out, Gaulding secured 12th on the starting grid while teammate Blaine Perkins took 33rd in the #07 AUTOParkit.com Chevrolet. The two teams sent home were also among the six who missed the cut in last week’s Daytona opener: Garrett Smithley in B.J. McLeod’s #99 PCARx Chevrolet and Ryan Vargas in CHK Racing’s #74 Chevrolet.
|Jeremy Clements' crew with electrical issues on Saturday.|
Securing 38th and last on the grid was another DNQ from Daytona in the #91 JAG Metals LLC Chevrolet. Taking the place of Daytona driver Josh Bilicki was Cup regular Ross Chastain, who wore a white uniform from his Trackhouse Racing effort. On a Saturday where Winter Storm Piper pelted Southern California with rain and even snow, NASCAR still managed to dry the track in enough time to get the XFINITY cars on track for a couple pace laps. During these laps, 11th-place starter Jeremy Clements made an unscheduled stop in his #51 PacWest First Pacific Funding Chevrolet. The driver reported a short in the system, and something felt hot next to his arm. He came to a stop on pit road, and a wisp of smoke from under the hood caused them to look at the engine. Fortunately, an intensifying drizzle forced NASCAR to call off the start, and the rest of the field soon rolled to a stop on pit road. Clements’ crew dropped the hood and pushed his car alongside the sixth row of cars. The rain returned, and the race was pushed to Sunday after the Cup race.
Repairs to the Clements car made his one of five sent to the rear for pre-race penalties, joined by 4th-place Parker Retzlaff in the #31 Funkaway Chevrolet, 18th-place Kyle Sieg in the #38 TopPools.com Ford, 21st-place David Starr in the #02 Our Motorsports Chevrolet, and 37th-place Timmy Hill in the #66 Klutch Vodka Ford. Not joining them was Parker Kligerman, whose #48 Big Machine Racing Spiked Coolers Chevrolet couldn’t get fired as the crew pushed him to pit road. A push truck got him re-fired on the apron of Turn 1, and Kligerman reassumed the 23rd spot.
|Parker Kligerman's starter issue on Sunday.|
“Starter motor was a little messed up,” Kligerman said after the race. “So ECR does a great job, but we had a little issue couldn't start it. So we had to get pushed out - it was a little frightening for a second. But once we got fired, we were off and rolling.”
Meanwhille, Clements dropped to the very back of the field, and took the green flag by himself in 38th. By the end of that first lap, the spot fell to C.J. McLaughlin in the #53 Sci Aps Chevrolet, which trailed the pack by open ground. Ahead of him, by Lap 6, Jeffrey Earnhardt slipped to 37th in the #44 Jesus Revolution – The Movie Chevrolet. Earnhardt, too, started to lose touch with the pack, though his gap back to McLaughlin appeared to stabilize. By Lap 13, Earnhardt had caught one of his Alpha Prime Racing teammates in Ryan Ellis, driver of the #43 Costa Oil Chevrolet. But Ellis drew away from Earnhardt the next time by. Thus, McLaughlin remained in 38th when the competition caution fell on Lap 15.
Under the caution, McLaughlin made a pit stop for a fluctuating fuel pressure gauge. Joining him on pit road was Kaz Grala, whose #26 Fire Department Coffee Toyota appeared off the pace in the opening run, losing a few spots while running in the low lane. Grala took last from McLaughlin by Lap 18. The pair pitted again on Lap 19 with Grala coming out ahead of McLaughlin, putting the #53 back to 38th place for the ensuing restart.
Back under green, McLaughlin held the spot until Lap 26, when he passed Daytona last-place finisher Bayley Currey in the #4 KSDT CPA Chevrolet. But Currey only held the spot for an instant as the caution fell one lap later.
|Gaulding makes the hard left turn as the final|
last-place finisher on Auto Club's 2-mile layout.
On Lap 27, Gaulding was running in the 33rd spot when he cut down a right-front tire and slammed the blue-painted backstretch wall with the right side. The caution fell as Gaulding pulled to the apron, clouds of smoke billowing from his right-front as the tire came apart. He managed to make it to pit road, where the crew first told him to pull into the garage using the opening near the scoring pylon. The crew then changed their mind, telling him to roll further down to his pit stall closer to Turn 1. Gaulding dropped the window net as the crew looked under the hood and changed tires. But on Lap 29, someone said “Take it behind the wall.” After waiting for a couple other cars to complete pit stops, Gaulding rolled two stalls forward to the garage entrance beneath the press box.
“We’re done, Jason?” someone asked as Gaulding pulled behind the wall.
“Sorry guys,” said Gaulding.
“It’s okay, bud.”
Despite four cautions in the final stage, Gaulding was the only retiree from the race. McLaughlin remained in 37th, ultimately losing three laps to the leaders. Finishing two laps down were 36th-place Tyler Reddick in the #24 Gearwrench Toyota, which left the track with several large tire marks on the driver’s door, and David Starr in an unsponsored #02 Chevrolet for Our Motorsports. Rounding out the Bottom Five in 34th was Ryan Ells, whose #43 Costa Oil Chevrolet was bumped into a spin off Turn 2, putting him one lap down.
Parker Kligerman finishes 10th in second start for Big Machine Racing
Coming into Sunday night’s race, Parker Kligerman had just two XFINITY starts at Fontana, and none since 2013, when he finished 4th for Kyle Busch Motorsports in a race won by Busch himself. Following his 23rd-place finish in this year’s Daytona opener, Kligerman took home 10th in Fontana. He discussed his race after the finish.
“It was good,” he said of his race. “I need to clean some things up on pit road, personally. Just some stuff I gotta figure out with brakes and that sort of thing and our equipment. But we obviously had a really fast car. And that's really cool. Patrick Donohue, and everyone on this Spiked Coolers Camaro just did an excellent job of just being prepared, having a great car. And we executed all day. And just the last run, we couldn't fire off and I don't know what we were missing. And we obviously got 10th, and I felt like the 21 (of Austin Hill), which finished 6th, we were with him. Him and the 98 (of Riley Herbst), that was who we should have been around. So we should've probably finished sixth to eighth and with the 10th in Stage 1 and 5th in Stage 2, I felt like you know, a big big day.”
Kligerman also discussed which races he’s looking forward to as the season continues. “Vegas - I love Vegas. So, I'm really excited about next week. Phoenix is one that I'm still working on. I've been working on for like three months. I know I need to be better there. I've told the whole team I will be the limiting factor there. So, it's just a place that I knew I need to work on. But I'm looking forward to that - I like the challenge, and I feel like I've been finding things simulation-wise and our sim really lined up well tonight. So I'm like alright, if that correlates correctly, then I'm really excited about Phoenix and then Atlanta of course and COTA - bring it on. So we've got a great set of tracks. This is the kind of momentum we need to build and we're gonna have a really good first part of season.”
*All four of Gaulding’s XFINITY last-place finishes have come with different teams: RSS Racing (Phoenix 2017), Jimmy Means Racing (Darlington 2021), Mike Harmon Racing (Charlotte “Roval” 2021), and now SS-Green Light Racing (Fontana 2023).
*This marked the first last-place run for the #08 in a XFINITY Series race since August 29, 2020 at Daytona, when Joe Graf, Jr. crashed after 7 laps of the summer race at Daytona.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
38) #08-Gray Gaulding / 26 laps / crash
37) #53-C.J. McLaughlin / 147 laps / running
36) #24-Tyler Reddick / 148 laps / running
35) #02-David Starr / 148 laps / running
34) #43-Ryan Ellis / 149 laps / running
2023 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) JD Motorsports, SS-Green Light Racing (1)
2023 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet, Ford (1)
2023 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP