By Jacob Seelman, Special Contributor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – With a rebranded race team, a familiar manufacturer and a renewed belief in his on-track chances, Tanner Gray fought his way to a career-best runner-up finish during Friday night’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series season opener.
Despite being nearly swept up in several of the night’s multi-truck melees, Gray kept coming back toward the front and ultimately found himself in the mix behind eventual winner Zane Smith in what turned out to be the closing laps of the race.
Gray worked his way to second in line before the skies opened up and dampened the Daytona Int’l Speedway pavement, cutting the NextEra Energy Resources 250 21 laps short of its scheduled distance.
It was an impressive rally given that Gray was involved in the first big incident of the night at lap 29.
“Tonight’s race was obviously a little bit chaotic for us. We got caught up in a couple wrecks there and got some damage early, and at one point I was a lap down. Just really had to focus on getting [the hole in the nose] fixed, then trying to get our lap back,” Gray noted. “Overall with the rain, going back green there, I was a little bit nervous just because I didn’t feel like I was going to be able to push as well as what I probably needed to [in order] to be in contention to win.
“With that being said, in these speedway races, there’s a lot of things that happen, and everything kind of gets wild at the end,” he added. “You never know what can happen, but that was just kind of a hectic race for us.”
Though it might have appeared to many to be a wild offseason for Gray, who saw his team’s name change from David Gilliland Racing to TRICON Garage and swapped manufacturers from Ford back to Toyota, the 24-year-old native of Artesia, N.M., said it was a simpler process than people might think.
“It’s been about as smooth as you could ask for, with how much stuff we have going on,” said Gray of the organizational transition. “Everybody from Toyota has been great. It’s been awesome to get back and work with them. From my side, just being able to use the tools and the resources that they have, everything from TPC [the Toyota Performance Center] to GT12, their sim in Salisbury … it’s all things that benefit us as a group.
“Along with that, having [crew chief] Jerame Donley come on board, as well as [spotter] Coleman Pressley up top, I’ve just been trying to get on the same page as them and make sure we’re all knowing what we need to be successful together,” Gray continued. “Everybody back at TRICON has done a really good job getting everything ready to get here, because like I said, there’s a lot of stuff going on.
“It’s still a work in progress, but we’re getting there, and to show up and be as good as we were tonight is an amazing feeling.”
Gray has weathered the storm of three up-and-down Truck Series seasons, with just seven total top fives and 16 top-10 finishes in 71 combined series starts, and a best finish of 14th in the point standings.
Before Friday’s first crash, Gray felt as though he might be able to challenge for a victory, but said he “had nothing for Zane” with the damage he had on the front bumper of his Toyota Tundra TRD Pro.
“I couldn’t have really led … unless something big happened, and I was able to get a big push from behind, someone that had been pretty dedicated to me,” Gray explained. “Yeah, most of our splitter was gone, we had a hole in the right front, and the door was caved in from the left rear. Just a lot of damage … and I felt like even being behind Zane made it tough for me to really get to him and push him as well as what I needed to.
“I’m happy to finish second with how our truck looked after, but at the same time, I’m a competitor, and I want to race. A win locks you into the playoffs and that’s what we’ll be looking for.”
Looking forward on the schedule, Gray’s next shot to punch into victory lane will be at Las Vegas (Nev.) Motor Speedway on March 3, where he earned his most recent top-five finish in the Truck Series.
That instills some confidence into the former NHRA Pro Stock champion, who knows there’s only one goal for him to focus on in the races ahead.
“I feel like it’s time for me to step up and win,” said Gray. “That’s what it comes down to.”