His career seemingly at a dead end in '06, David Gilliland reached the Cup Series the old-fashioned way: He raced his way in
IN THIS ERA of the Young Gun, when NASCAR team owners and, especially, sponsors are on the prowl for ever more youthful, telegenic racers to drive their products—er, cars—it's refreshing to be reminded that sometimes it's not the age but the caliber of the gun that really matters. Consider this season's new hotshot, David Gilliland. At 30, he is twice as old as some of the prospects being signed to driver-development deals. But with only 17 Cup races under his belt, the pilot of the number 38 M&M's Ford appears ready to take candy (and checkered flags) from NASCAR's bonus babies.
At Daytona he finished second in the Bud Shootout, won the pole for the 500 and then placed eighth in the Great American Race. On Sunday at California Speedway, in the Auto Club 500 won by Matt Kenseth, Gilliland ran a workmanlike race and finished 25th. He's 11th in the points standings and a dark horse to make the Chase.
It was only a year ago that Gilliland, who had competed on the NASCAR West Series satellite circuit in 2004 and '05, received what he figured was his last chance to make it as a stock car racer. Clay Andrews, a Busch Series car owner, hired him to drive in nine races. It wasn't the most attractive offer, as Busch rides go—Andrews didn't even have a sponsor—but Gilliland quit his job as a race car builder in Riverside, Calif., and moved his wife and their two kids to Charlotte so he could work in Andrews's shop and personally helped put together his race car.
In his first four starts of the season Gilliland's best finish was 29th. When he arrived at Kentucky Speedway for the June 17 Meijer 500 he was at another crossroads. "I had to perform," says Gilliland, "or else think about going in a different direction."
He performed. At Kentucky, Gilliland accomplished something almost unheard of in modern NASCAR racing: He won the race in an unsponsored car. What's more, he became the first driver to reach Victory Lane in a 2006 Busch race who wasn't a Nextel Cup regular. It was the motor sports equivalent of N.C. State beating Houston for the NCAA title, and within two days Gilliland had 10 offers to drive a full-time Cup schedule.
He signed with Robert Yates Racing, made 14 starts for the struggling team and had his best finish, 15th, at Talladega. This year Gilliland is off to a surprisingly solid start. "David is a very, very talented driver, and he's had to earn everything the hard way," says Tony Stewart. "He's going to have a lot of success here. He'll get better each week."
Take it from one of the fastest of the Old Guns.
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Sunday's race at California Speedway made it clear that the line for the 2007 Nextel Cup forms behind the top two drivers of '06: Matt Kenseth (lead car, above) and Jimmie Johnson, the reigning champion. Kenseth won the Auto Club 500 without crew chief Robbie Reiser, who's serving a four-race suspension for rules infractions at Daytona. Kenseth was able to overcome the absence because the core of his team has been together for seven years—one of Cup racing's longest stretches. Johnson took third.
Mark Martin's retirement rondo continues. The 48-year-old driver was slated for only 22 races this season, but after finishing fifth on Sunday he leads the point standings and is weighing running in all 36 Cup events. Even if he does, don't expect him to make the Chase. His team, Ginn Racing, doesn't have the resources for sustained success against the likes of Hendrick Motorsports, Gibbs Racing or Martin's old employer, Roush Racing.
A week after finishing 30th in the Daytona 500, Michael Waltrip failed to qualify at California, getting bumped from the grid by one of his own Toyota drivers, David Reutimann. Waltrip's number 55 team, which is still reeling from the Daytona cheating scandal, is in a rapidly deepening hole. It might be be time for the peripatetic Waltrip to give up driving and turn his attention full-time to running his team.
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38 SPECIAL After his Daytona splash and a cagey California run (above), Gilliland is rolling.
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ROBERT LABERGE/GETTY IMAGES (KENSETH)