Patrick Mahomes

Photo: Panini America

What do Gray Gaulding and NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes have in common?

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In addition to his racing career, Xfinity Series driver Gray Gaulding is a big NFL fan and fantasy football player.

He knows he needs help to make the Xfinity playoffs, so for Friday’s Food City 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. on NBCSN), Gaulding is going to his bench so to speak and has joined forces with 2018 NFL MVP QB Patrick Mahomes.

Several images of Mahomes will grace Gaulding’s No. 08 Chevrolet as part of a promotion with Panini America’s release of the new 2019 Donruss Football trading card set. After the race, Panini will auction off the hood on Gaulding’s car to raise money for Mahomes’ “15 and the Mahomies Foundation.”

MORE: NBC Sports’ Sunday Night Football schedule 

“To be associated with such a high-profile player, obviously the NFL’s MVP and just the person Patrick Mahomes is, what I love about him is obviously his game and what he’s like off the field,” Gaulding told NBC Sports. “I feel that’s where I see a lot of similarities between the two of us, where we’re just ourselves, do our jobs and try to do it at the highest level possible.”

Not surprisingly, Mahomes – who threw for 50 touchdowns and over 5,000 yards in his MVP year for the Kansas City Chiefs last season – is on Gaulding’s fantasy football team this season. Gaulding has also invited Mahomes to race go-karts at the track behind his house in the near future and is waiting to firm up a date.

“You look at a guy like Patrick Mahomes, a lot of people overlooked him, he rode the bench the first part of his career and waited to get his shot,” Gaulding said. “When he got it, he went from being a bench player to MVP and one of the highest-profile players in the league in the last 20 years.

“I feel like I relate to him just because that’s kind of how my career started, people looked over me and I had to prove myself to keep my rides and make it to the Cup Series. Yeah, I’m a big fan. He’s incredible.”

Mahomes, who tweeted a shoutout to Gaulding on Twitter Tuesday night, won’t be at Friday’s race as he’ll be preparing for the following night’s preseason game vs. the Steelers in Pittsburgh. But Gaulding hopes to draw inspiration from Mahomes’ presence on his race car, especially since Gaulding – 13th in the Xfinity Series standings – still holds hope he’ll make the playoffs.

“Bristol is one of my favorite tracks on the circuit, I’ve loved it ever since I first showed up there in the K&N Series in 2013,” Gaulding said. “What better place to go to. We’ve had road courses and now we have Bristol. Those are the best wildcard races you can have other than Daytona and Talladega because things can happen. By having the MVP on the car, we’re looking to have an MVP night.

“If you’re going forward in the season, this is one of my best shots to possibly maybe steal a win or gain a lot of playoff points going into the playoffs. Our goal is top 10, but if we can work some strategy and get up front late in the race and steal a victory, that’s what we’re going to do.

“We’re definitely in Hail Mary mode. I don’t think we can point our way in right now, but we’ve gained a lot of points in the last few weeks. We’re just going to take every week one at a time, and if it gets us in great. But if not, we can’t say we didn’t put it all out there to try and get it done.”

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Long: In a time of change, some things remain the same at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — They’ve reconvened in Daytona International Speedway’s infield, some back for a fifth year, others a 10th and still others for more, to watch cars go around in circles.

Their flags pledge loyalties to Dale Earnhardt Sr., Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, celebrating days gone by. Other flags wave for Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and reigning series champ Joey Logano.

New or old, fans have returned for Sunday’s Daytona 500, which will held among a swirl of changes.

The season starts with talk of rules that debut next weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway and will change how the racing looks. There also have been discussions of a new look for 2020 and beyond. Schedule changes are expected next year, even more in 2021 – when the Gen 7 car is projected to premiere.

The dawn of a new season and what is coming has reinvigorated a garage beaten down the past couple of years. Jim France is now in charge and he’s in the garage, a marked change from Brian France’s approach.

Seeing Jim France each weekend gives those who work in the garage optimism. How long it lasts depends on what changes the sanctioning body make.

For fans, it’s all about what the racing looks like.

That’s a lot left to be desired at Daytona so far. Asked if he thought the racing had been good this week, Richard Petty said: “No, I don’t.”

His comment came before Saturday’s Xfinity race won by Michael Annett, who led the final 45 laps. It was great win for Annett personally but the single-file racing frustrated some fans and left them to wonder how Daytona could turn into a high-speed conga line.

“I don’t know what’s going on with the high line becoming just so clearly dominant,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said after watching JR Motorsports win the season-opening Xfinity race for the fourth time in the last six years. “To listen to the drivers and to watch what happened (Saturday) in the race, it doesn’t seem like it’s entirely by choice that they all ride up there, it’s by necessity.”

Fans saw that same type of racing in the Clash and both qualifying races during Speedweeks. What often was missing in those events were things Clint Bowyer says are important to make a good race.

“Moments,” Bowyer said this week. “No different than when I go to a football game. The Super Bowl sucked and I am a football fan. Again, you go watch the (Kansas City) Chiefs games, I was lucky enough to be a Chiefs fan this year and it was a highlight reel one after another with (quarterback Patrick) Mahomes and (Tyreek) Hill.

“I don’t know, there wasn’t a highlight the whole Super Bowl in my opinion. It was a snoozer. Was it an extremely challenging game in other eyes, yes. I guarantee you there are football gods out there saying it was the best game in the history of football. To me, there weren’t enough moments.

“You have to have good passing, side-by-side (racing), changes for the lead, cautions – I don’t want a caution because that means somebody has wrecked or had a problem but there are so many things that go into adding up to those moments. Us drivers, you have to be in a situation that you can make the most of.

“Again, without a caution at the end of some of these restrictor-plate tracks, we may not have those moments. Sometimes all it takes is a caution to make that moment that someone takes to the office the next (day) to say, ‘My gosh, you should have been there and seen that.’ We have to have more of those, no question.”

There is a belief that the racing should be better in the Daytona 500 with a full 40-car field. The Clash had 20 cars and both qualifying races had 21-car fields. There weren’t enough cars to create a competitive second lane, so most ran the high line. That said, Chase Elliott made a number of passes on his own in his qualifying race. Daniel Suarez also tried such moves.

But for all the talk about the racing, some things remain the same. Cup veterans often dominate Speedweeks and have done so this week. Jimmie Johnson won the Clash after contact with Paul Menard. Kevin Harvick and Logano each won their qualifying races. A Hendrick Motorsports car is on the pole for a fifth consecutive year, this time with William Byron.

Maybe things will change Sunday. The Truck Series saw Austin Hill score his first career series win. Then Annett recorded his first career Xfinity win Saturday. 

That’s why fans travel near and far to be at Daytona on a Sunday in February. For all the questions about the racing, for the surprise winners, no one knows what to expect. Just like it has always been at this track.