Taylor Gray entered the Race at Ace 125 with momentum and confidence on his side after picking up his first career CARS Late Model Stock Car Tour victory at Hickory Motor Speedway and securing a second-place finish in the inaugural Old North State Nationals at Orange County Speedway.
Gray’s good fortunes would end abruptly not long after the green flag dropped for the 125-lap feature, as multiple issues throughout the evening culminated in him being parked by CARS Tour officials following a late-race incident with Mini Tyrrell.
Gray was not pleased with the way his weekend at Ace unfolded, but he admitted that he is ready to move on and pursue his second career CARS LMSC Tour victory when the series travels to Motor Mile Speedway on Saturday.
“It was definitely a rough weekend for sure,” Gray said. “We got caught up in a wreck on Lap three and knocked a hole in the radiator. I was just trying to survive the rest of the race and we had to come in on almost every caution to cool the motor off.”
Gray carried over the speed that he possessed at both Orange County and Hickory into practice at Ace, as he posted the fourth and sixth quickest times in the two sessions on Friday afternoon before qualifying his #17 Gray Motorsports / Valvoline Toyota in the ninth position.
Gray intended to patiently work his way up through the field during the first few laps, but his plan was derailed after Layne Riggs attempted to get in front of Justin Carroll as the leaders entered Turn 3. Carroll was forced to check up, which led to a chain reaction that damaged several cars including eventual race winner Josh Berry.
Gray sustained damage to both ends of his car after running into the back of Tommy Lemons Jr. and getting spun by fellow rookie Sammy Smith, but he was able to drive his car back to the pits to fix his damaged radiator. The repairs on Gray’s car carried over into a couple of green flag runs, which caused him to fall several laps behind the leaders and eliminated any chance of him securing his third consecutive Top 5.
Despite being knocked out of contention, Gray was motivated to salvage a solid points night for his team after several other top competitors, including Riggs, suffered problems of their own. Riggs’ issues eventually put him on the same lap as Gray, with the latter shifting his focus to stay in front of the other during the second half of the race.
Gray’s determination to stay in front of Riggs would eventually lead him to a small pack of lead lap cars that included Tyrrell, who was looking to pick up his best finish of the 2019 CARS LMSC Tour season. Gray saw an opening underneath Tyrrell but ended up colliding with the rear of the #81 Friends of Jaclyn Foundation Chevrolet, which sent him around in Turn 1.
“The leaders were coming up behind us and we didn’t want to go another lap down,” Gray said. “We obviously had a faster car than the guys in front of us even though we were wrecked. I tried to get under him, but it wasn’t the greatest move. Things happen I guess.”
CARS Tour officials were not thrilled with the way Gray was aggressively racing lead lap cars after being numerous laps down and elected to park him for the night after his incident with Tyrrell. Gray would ultimately settle for a 19th place finish once the checkered flag fell, which caused his deficit to Berry grow by 20 more points in the CARS LMSC Tour standings.
Gray was initially furious at the series’ decision to park him after hitting Tyrrell, but he admitted that he has since talked with competition director Chris Ragle about the accident and understands what he needs to do to prevent similar situations in the future. Ragle stated that the decision to park Gray was an easy one for him to make, as he believed Gray should not have been racing any lead lap cars regardless of how fast his Late Model was.
“He was 16 laps down,” Ragle said. “He probably had a really quick car all day, but he’s racing against two guys on the lead lap who are battling for position. He went three-wide down into Turn 1, clipped those guys, and spun one out right in front of the leaders. He’s young, but it was just a bad decision on his part. He said his brakes locked up, but my position is that he shouldn’t have put himself in a position to get his brakes locked up and he should have just let the leaders go.”
With Ace now completely behind him, Gray will look to regain some of his lost ground to Berry in the upcoming Heritage Truck Centers 250 at Motor Mile. Gray has made several laps around the facility prior to this weekend’s race, but he stated that he just wants to keep the car underneath of him and stay out of trouble so that he can keep his quest for a CARS LMSC Tour championship going.
“The track has definitely got a whole lot of grip,” Gray said. “It’s a high-grip track for sure. Motor Mile reminds me a lot of Kenly, except it’s got way more grip. It’s also high-banked, but the thing that stands out the most is that it’s probably the grippiest track I’ve ever been on.”
The CARS LMSC Tour will return to Motor Mile for the first time since 2015 on Saturday evening, with the green flag expected to drop at around 7:30 p.m. Gray and the rest of his competitors will be chasing Berry, who will look to capitalize off his victory at Ace and stay undefeated in CARS LMSC Tour competition at Motor Mile after taking home the checkered flag in the series’ only visit to the track.
Cover photo by Corey Latham.