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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Spencer Gallagher doesn’t hold back with what he says

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Spencer Gallagher‘s earliest NASCAR memory is one of “shock and awe.”

As an 8-year-old, Gallagher stood near the start-finish line as the green flag dropped during a race at his home track of Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“I could not believe what transpired before me,” Gallagher told NBC Sports of the moment the field roared by. “That is still one of my favorite sounds to this day, those things sounding like F1 cars made by Satan.”

A few years later, Gallagher got the final push to getting in a car himself after witnessing a Legends race at the road course outside LVMS.

“I thought to myself, ‘My God, that is the angriest swarm of bees I’ve ever seen,'” Gallagher said. “I kind of got hooked from there. I thought it looked really cool and I wanted to try it. … I was terrible for a good while, but eventually I got pretty decent at it and that kind of kicked off the saga of me.”

Gallagher’s saga carried him through the ARCA Racing Series, where he won his 51st and last start in 2014 at Kansas Speedway before he and his families’ team, GMS Racing, transitioned full-time to Camping World Truck Series in 2015.

Now Gallagher is 27-year-old rookie in the Xfinity Series, driving the No. 23 for GMS Racing.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed

(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: What was your ‘Welcome to the Xfinity Series moment’?

Gallagher: I think the big welcome to the Xfinity Series moment is when you’re just racing your ass off, you are driving as fast as you possibly can and you remember that this is for 15th. This is really stepping into the bottom echelon of what I consider to be really big-time American stock car racing.

The Truck series is incredible competitive, but you go up to the Xfinity Series and it’s competitive in a different sense of the word. It’s no longer Christopher Bell and the (Kyle Busch Motorsports) No. 4. No, no. That’s Kyle Busch in the Joe Gibbs Racing Camry, right there. You are officially in the deep end of the pool and with that comes a great deal of challenge.

NBC Sports: What was your first car?

Gallagher: I think it was actually, I’m probably going to get crucified for this since I’m a Chevrolet driver, it was actually a Prius. I got my mom’s used Prius in high school and I remember distinctly making extensive use of the brake mode feature to get into some corner and roundabouts going to high school around Vegas.

NBC Sports: The what feature?

Gallagher: It is a regenerative braking mode where when you put it in it’s like drive, but when you roll off the gas the electric motors get really aggressive about braking for you and trying to recoup some energy. So what that means if you wanted to be a hooligan, you could drive it off in the corner on the braking mode and the second you lift off the gas it is planting itself on those front tires and it will cut. So many a misadventure was had in that Prius.

NBC Sports: If you were in the Cup Series night race at Bristol, what would be your introduction song?

Gallagher: I think you have to go with the classic, Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone.” … I tell people that is actually how you know as a race car driver you’ve reached 200 mph despite not having a speedometer in the car. “Danger Zone” just automatically starts playing in your head. You ask anybody that, if they deny it, they’re lying.

NBC Sports: What’s the best criticism you’ve received over the course of your career?

Gallagher: I remember one of my first crew chiefs, he told me, ‘At the very least I don’t have to light a fire under your ass to get you to go. It’s slowing you down more than anything.’ I took that as a high compliment. If you got to pick one attribute to have in a race car driver I would think having to put a leash on them is probably a little better than having to light a fire under ’em.

NBC Sports: During the media tour back in January was really the first time I’d ever been exposed to you for an extended period of time.

Gallagher: Oh, I’m sorry.

NBC Sports: That’s OK. It was very obvious and clear you’re very comfortable with yourself. You’re very extroverted. Has that always been the case for you?

(Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Gallagher: You know, I’d like to believe I’ve been confident in who I am and what I am for a while. I sort of learned when I was young that this is kind of the only go around you get so you may as well love yourself while you’re doing it. I’ve always believed very firmly in the idea of knowing myself. I know myself. I know who I am, what I am and where I want to be. That’s something that’s always given me confidence. As far as the extrovert thing. I tell people I’m an introvert that learned to become an extrovert.

In my early days I wasn’t like this, but when I found, especially NASCAR, when I started to interact with fans, I found the more I put myself out there and the bigger I let myself be the more they loved it. So give the people what they love. That’s kind of been my MO ever since. This is a sport that thrives on personalities. I think one of the chief criticisms you hear about drivers when they talk to someone or get in front of a camera, ‘He’s bland, he’s boring.’ There is no greater sin in an environment where you’re on TV than to be boring. I could do that. I could do that and go up and thank the sponsors, have a stone slab of a face and move on. I choose not too. Also, I think it’s a great waste of the potential of showing how you feel and showing that you love to do this every day.

NBC Sports: You see a lot of young drivers like having a personality on social media and in other environments. But once they are on pit road or in the garage with a camera or microphone in front of them, it’s one slate of emotions the entire time. Why do you think that is with this current generation of drivers?

Gallagher: That’s an interesting question. I think you could of course harken it back to the old idea, people get a camera stuck in their face and all of a sudden they become really cautious of themselves. I think that has a lot to do with it. Something I’ve observed in most people, you stick a camera in front of their face and they completely change. … Once they have a red light pointing at their face, they’re conscious of what they’re saying and you watch their personalities change. If there’s one thing I have to say I have a gift in life, I’ve never minded the camera. The camera don’t bug me. If anything, it encourages me. It hypes me up. I like to put on a good show and give them something to watch. I don’t think that’s a common instinct in people.

In drivers especially, drivers are in an odd position. They’re athletes that are simultaneously thrust into the position of being entertainers in a lot of respects. They don’t receive any training for that and in any other life they wouldn’t have been in any kind of entertainment because they don’t necessarily want the attention. You’re taking a subset of people who when they grow up and all their lives they were never necessarily wanting to be trained to be in front of a camera. Then you throw them in front of a camera. That doesn’t come naturally or off the cuff to a lot of people. For some reason, it does to me. … But that’s been me always. I’ve never minded public speaking. I was great in debate class. I don’t mind getting up in front of people and talking.

NBC Sports: Who was your favorite driver growing up?

Gallagher: I always liked Tony Stewart. For one simple reason. Something I always loved about Tony, whenever someone asked him a question, you never had to guess what Tony Stewart was thinking or feeling. You always knew exactly what was on his mind because he’d tell you. He wasn’t scared of it. I always admired and respected that.

Previous Xfinity Spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

William Byron

New Hampshire winners and losers

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WINNERS

Kevin HarvickHe no longer has to answer the question of when is he going to win (same for Stewart-Haas Racing). Now the question is if this will lead to a string of wins for the No. 4 team, which has shown speed but not been able to capitalize on it.

Parity — Kevin Harvick marked the seventh different winner in the last seven Cup races, the longest streak of the season.

Ryan Newman First, he was in a backup car and had to start at the rear on a track where passing is difficult. Then, he had a broken coil wire that sapped his engine’s power with about 100 laps to go. His team recovered and he finished seventh for his fifth top 10 in the last six races. Also, he climbed into a playoff spot.

Matt DiBenedetto His fifth-place finish was his third top-10 result in the last five races. Good progress for Leavine Family Racing.

LOSERS

Jimmie JohnsonBack-to-back 30th-place finishes have dropped the seven-time champion out of a playoff spot. He’s never missed NASCAR’s postseason — and is the only driver who can say that he’s been in the Chase/playoffs every year since its inception in 2004. Will that streak continue? Or will it end this year?

Richard Childress Racing — RCR cars finished 37th (Daniel Hemric) and 32nd (Austin Dillon). Hemric’s day ended after contact from Daniel Suarez. Dillon blew a right front tire early and that damaged his car.

Hendrick Motorsports — Alex Bowman’s team went through two cars before Sunday’s race. William Byron had to go to a backup because of an incident in practice. Mechanical issues caused Jimmie Johnson to finish 30th and Chase Elliott to place 29th. Bowman placed 14th and Byron led the way with a 12th-place finish. The best thing about the weekend for Hendrick Motorsports is it is over.

Kyle Larson — Two crashes within the last 100 laps made for a bad day Sunday.

With an inadvertent but legal deke, Erik Jones rallies for third

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LOUDON, N.H. – With critical points hanging in the balance for a playoff bid, Erik Jones thought he screwed up Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Instead, he inadvertently might have stumbled across a new strategy for keeping opponents guessing on pit stops.

During the final caution with 35 laps remaining, Jones swerved to the right back on the racing surface at the last minute, driving over the pit lane commitment box.

Jones began fuming over the team radio, but he eventually was informed there would be no penalty from NASCAR, which changed its rule governing pit entry over the past two seasons. Drivers with four tires below the boundary must enter the pits; Jones had only his left-sides below.

Two tires below once would have committed a car to the pits at tracks such as New Hampshire and shorter, and that caused some confusion on Twitter (NASCAR senior vice president Steve O’Donnell clarified the call).

But it raises an interesting point: Should every driver who is committed to staying on track fake a move to the pits by rolling over the commitment box as Jones did?

“I don’t think NASCAR would appreciate that very much, and I’m glad we didn’t get a penalty,” Jones said with a smile. “But it’s definitely an interesting situation. I forgot (what) the rules actually said, and I think many people probably were surprised by that.

“So I think you might see some more faking out. I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Crew chief Chris Gayle was sure Jones would escape punishment after he watched the replay and saw the No. 20 Toyota had at least two wheels above the inside boundary.

“I was like, ‘Oh, we’re good,’ because you’ve got to have all four below the box, and he kind of split it,” Gayle said. “I think he didn’t think about it. They say it in the driver’s meeting all the time now, and you’ve got to pay attention, but most everywhere it’s all four below the orange box.”

After restarting in second behind race winner Kevin Harvick, Jones hung on for third behind Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin and punctuated a race in which he overcame contact with two drivers and a speeding penalty.

He started fourth and catapulted into the lead with a two-tire call by Gayle on Lap 48. Jones finished second in the first stage and then made contact with Alex Bowman’s No. 88 Chevrolet while exiting his pit stall on Lap 111. That necessitated another stop dropping him to 28th as the last car on the lead lap.

“We had contact here on pit road (in the 2017 race), and it ended our day, blew a tire on the restart, so we couldn’t risk that,” Jones said. “We couldn’t have a DNF, so coming down to fix it was the right thing to do. We had to make that right and put ourselves back out there, but it was up and down.”

While battling through the field 20 laps later, Jones made contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who brought out a Lap 138 yellow by hitting the wall with a flat tire from the damage. Jones incurred a speeding penalty entering the pits during the caution.

But he restarted in 11th and steadily marched forward during the second half. He was in fifth when the yellow flew the last time, allowing Gayle to keep his car on track and restart beside Harvick.

“That was the good thing,” Jones said. “The (car) had enough speed to get back up there and get in contention. I think at the end with some clean air, we could be in (Harvick’s) spot, I think we were just as fast as him there the run before, so we have to keep putting ourselves up there, and eventually it’s going to work out, but a good testament to our team, just the way we came back today.”

With six races remaining in the regular season, he is ranked 14th and is 28 points above the cutoff line after entering New Hampshire in 16th with only a two-point cushion. But when other bubble drivers had trouble Sunday, it made Gayle’s strategy decisions simpler.

“It wasn’t as bad today because you start seeing other guys having problems that we were racing in the points,” Gayle said. “So when they all started having trouble, and we’re at the back, I’m like OK, this makes it a little bit easier. We can just do something and go for the win here at the end.”

Jones seems on the verge of a win after finishing third in four of the past nine starts.

With contract talks at JGR progressing well, the only cloud on the horizon might be Stenhouse, who vowed payback against Jones between and the playoffs.

“I guess go ahead,” Jones said when told of Stenhouse’s threat. “He was racing me really hard and for nothing. We were 200 laps to go in the race, and he had the choice of lifting and letting me go, and he didn’t do it for five laps, and that’s just how it is.

“If you’re going to race hard, you’re going to get raced hard. I didn’t want to have to do it, but sometimes it comes down to it. I like Ricky, but he races really hard. I expect it. If I’m going to race Kevin Harvick at the front of the field like that 10 laps in a row, I’m going to get wrecked. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to keep moving forward and keep giving yourself a good day.”

Denny Hamlin laments ‘stupid decision’ on final lap against Kevin Harvick

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In the aftermath of his runner-up finish to Kevin Harvick on Sunday in New Hampshire, Denny Hamlin was left regretting and praying.

He regretted his “stupid decision” on how to race Harvick on the last lap, which resulted in fenders banging and Harvick’s first win of the year.

That had Hamlin hoping a higher power might give him the win another way.

The tech gods could not be persuaded to intervene.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver wishes he had dealt with Harvick’s No. 4 Ford differently once they took the white flag.

He now knows he’d have been better off doing exactly what Harvick did in this race last year when he performed a bump-and-run on Kyle Busch in Turns 1 and 2 in the closing laps and went on to win.

“My decision was after Turn 1 and I got him out of the groove, ‘I don’t want to be the leader here, I’d rather be the guy behind’ and that was a stupid decision because I should have just went in there and carried him up the race track,” Hamlin said. “That’s just not the way I want to do it. We’re two veteran guys, we know how to race these things clean and let’s just figure it out in the end and he got the best of us.”

Hamlin said he has “lot of respect” for Harvick and “I did the best I could to be as clean as I could.”

Hamlin led 113 laps in a backup car after he crashed in practice on Friday.

“I knew we made it really good yesterday in practice, but once it got out front it was phenomenal and better than expected,” Hamlin said, but he lamented the difficulties of racing in dirty air with not getting to Harvick’s bumper sooner. “He never slipped a tire and I couldn’t quite get to him until he made that one little lane choice mistake coming to the white (flag) passing a lapped car and taking the bottom, I knew that was our opportunity to get a huge run and we did.”

Bubble Trouble: New Hampshire tough on those trying to make playoffs

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Sunday was a day of trouble for many of the drivers seeking to make the playoffs, but when it ended, Ryan Newman solidified his spot with a top-10 finish despite mechanical issues.

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson did not share Newman’s luck. Johnson fell out of a playoff spot after mechanical woes left him with a 30th-place finish for the second week in a row.

Here’s a look at what drivers trying to earn a playoff spot endured Sunday:

Ryan Newman — With just under 100 laps left, Newman radioed his crew that he thought his engine had lost a cylinder (it proved to be a broken coil wire) and he was down on power. When the crew told him to stay out, he responded by saying: “I ain’t coming in.”

Newman, who entered the race in the first spot outside a playoff position and in a backup car after crashing Friday, was running 14th at the time of the trouble. It looked as if he would lose several points. Instead, he managed to finish seventh to score his fifth top 10 in the last six races.

“Hell of a job today, guys,” Newman said on the radio to his team after the race. “That’s a never-give-up attitude.”

The recovery helped him climb from 17th in the points to 15th in the standings and in a playoff spot. Newman is 21 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson, who is in the first spot outside a playoff position.

Jimmie Johnson — A broken water pump and power steering issues sent him to pit road and he lost several laps for repairs. That left Johnson with a 30th-place finish, dropping him out of a playoff spot.

Johnson is 17 points behind Clint Bowyer for the last playoff position with six races left in the regular season.

“Certainly a letdown to say the least,” Johnson told NBCSN.

“Certainly the wrong time of year to have some bad luck. It looked like the guys I’m worried about in the points didn’t have the best of days either. Maybe I got a pass on this one. Just disappointed to say the least.”

Clint Bowyer: A crash on a restart impacted his day and left him with a 20th-place finish that dropped him from 14th in the points to 16th, the final playoff spot.

Bowyer has finished 20th or worse in four of the last six races.

Kyle Larson: Two crashes in the final 85 laps left him with a 33rd-place finish for his second finish of 20th or worse in the last three races. Larson remains 13th in the standings and is 31 points ahead of Johnson.

Erik JonesHe had contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on the track and Alex Bowman on pit road. He also had a pit road speeding penalty and thought he was going to be penalized another time on pit road. Through all of that, he managed to finish third for the second week in a row and solidified his spot after entering the day in the last playoff spot.

Jones is 14th in the standings, 28 points ahead of Johnson.