By Lee Elder
Tanner Gray, the NHRA Pro Stock points leader, will race full time in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East in 2019, the NHRA said Wednesday.
The second-year professional and third-generation NHRA racer will drive for the DGR Crosley team in the East Series, hoping to eventually earn his way into the NASCAR Cup Series.
“It comes down to me wanting to be able to race more and run a little bit more,” the 19-year-old Gray said. “I’ve wanted to do this since I was a kid.”
Gray has won 11 times in 44 Pro Stock starts.
The Pro Series East, Pro Series West and Pinty’s Series in Canada serve as venues for NASCAR’S driver development program. Gray was quoted as saying he had a conversation with NASCAR driver David Gilliland when Gray was racing a late model stock car in North Carolina. Gilliland, himself a former driver in the East and West series, encouraged Gray’s pursuit of a stock car career.
The list of top-flight NASCAR racers who have come through the three series is a long one. Former NASCAR Cup champ Kevin Harvick won the West Series championship in 1998, Christopher Bell, the 2017 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion, raced in the East Series after moving over from sprint car racing and Cup star Clint Bowyer came through the program after starting his career in dirt late model cars. IndyCar driver Bryan Herta and two-time Truck Series champ Matt Crafton also have starts in the West Series.
The point should be made that the competition in the three series is not at an entry-level for racing rookies. It is analogous to baseball’s high AA level of the minor leagues. Sarah Fisher, the former IndyCar driver who earned more than two million dollars racing in the Indianapolis 500 and went on to own an IndyCar team, made a serious attempt at stock car racing in the West Series. Despite racing for Bill McAnally Racing, the West Series’ strongest team, Fisher did not find success.
“I think you have to be a little bit younger to make this work, so I wanted to take the opportunity while I still had it,” said Gray. Gray is older than most of the drivers in the NASCAR Next program.
Gray’s impact on Pro Stock racing has been both sudden and dramatic. The winner of the 2017 Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award, he seems to be the odds-on favorite to win the 2018 Pro Stock title. He has a 52-point lead over second-place Vincent Nobile in the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship standings after winning at the Midwest Nationals last weekend.
As likeable as he is young, Gray represents the sport well and he gave the NHRA a marketing wedge into the youthful demographic group that might have been interested in watching one of its own tear up drag strips around the country.
Now the NHRA will have to find a replacement.