David Gilliland is NASCAR's newest hot property

by Tim Wohlford

August 19, 2006

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David Gilliland

In June, David Gilliland drove a Busch car, fielded by a scratch team, to victory over teams fielded by the heavy hitters of the NASCAR world in front of a national audience. Since that time he's been the talk of the NASCAR world, with virtually every NASCAR team trying to sign him up. On Friday, August 18, Gilliland was officially named as the driver of the Robert Yates Racing #38, sponsored by M&M - Mars. Luck, they say, is when opportunities meets preparation. David Gilliland, under that definition, is quite lucky.

Gilliland is a 30-year-old from California who started off in 1997 as a crew chief in the Winston West series, winning the Crew Chief of the Year title in that series in 1997 and 1998. He got the driving bug in 1999, and by 2004 was the Rookie of the Year in the NASCAR Southwest tour. Still, he wasn't a household name outside of that series, and his career seemed to stall at that point. Indeed, only 3 weeks before winning at the Busch race at Kentucky, he was too slow to make the Busch field at Lowes Motor Speedway.

However, the June Busch race at Kentucky changed all that. In an unsponsored car that didn't even have its own pit crew until shortly before the race, Gilliland broke an 18-month string of NASCAR Cup driver victories with his victory. The team, started before the season with only 4 employees, disbanded shortly after it became clear that Gilliland was moving on to Cup racing, emphasizing its fragility. "It's a big deal for an unsponsored team building our own motors to beat those guys" Gilliland said afterwards in describing the most dramatic upset NASCAR win in at least a decade. In winning, he beat Cup regulars JJ Yeley, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Greg Biffle.

Kyle Bush welcomed being beaten by his friend and former rival from his own Winston West days. "Gilliland, he's a pretty good friend of mine. I've known him for a few years now, especially running the Southwest tour and stuff like that. We exchanged phone numbers years ago when I ran in the SW Tour." Indeed, Gilliland stayed at Bush's house when Gilliland made the move to run in the Busch series. "He's gonna be good, he's a very good shoe, he's got a great head on his shoulders, I know he's not quite the age that people are looking for nowadays," Bush explained in an interview at MIS on Friday.

Gilliland needed the universe to converge some more in his favor to get this ride. First of all, Elliott Sadler was having a miserable season with Robert Yates Racing, and was looking to get out of his contract. When Jeremy Mayfield went public with his complaints over the 19 car owner's love interests (an extra-marital affair with driver Erin Crocker, who certain does not owe her continued ride to her on-track talents) the 19 car became suddenly vacant, and Sadler crossed over to the Dodge camp to take that seat. Yates, a troubled shop for some time itself, was unable to land any top names already in the Cup series, and was looking for a Busch driver when Gilliland won at Kentucky.

In the press conference announcing the change, Yates was gushing in his praise of Gilliland: "I've got some friends in the business, been around a long time, and earlier this season they said, 'You need to watch this guy. This is the next Dale Earnhardt. And early on, I started watching him, and every practice session he'd be at the top of the sheet."

Adding to Gilliland's lucky stars was the return of championship crew chief Todd Parrott, and the new driver-chief combo returned the 38 car to the top of the practice sheets at Michigan, a place where the Yates team hasn't been for some time. And, Michigan is a great place for a rookie to run their first race. "It's nice and wide, if it pushes up a little bit you're not gonna get into trouble 'cause it is so wide.

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