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Sweet 16: Todd Gilliland’s path to historic NASCAR championship

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Do you remember what you were doing at 16?

Bill McAnally was “fighting to get $2 to put gas” in his pickup in Ukiah, California, where he hauled bales of hay.

David Gilliland helped his dad, Butch Gilliland, field his entry in his first full-time season in NASCAR’s Winton West Series, which became the K&N Pro Series West circuit.

Chris Lawson, the son of parents who work in the insurance industry, chipped away at his own racing dreams in Dayton, Ohio.

In the last 15 years, McAnally won five of his record seven K&N West titles as a team owner. David Gilliland competed in 398 races in NASCAR’s three national series, including 332 in Sprint Cup. Lawson embraced the life of a crew chief.

All three men would help Todd Gilliland become NASCAR’s youngest champion.

THE NEW KID

McAnally only made 56 starts as a driver in what used to be the Winston West Series.

One race weekend, at All-American Speedway in Roseville, California, stands out to the owner of Bill McAnally Racing thanks to the helping hand of Butch Gilliland.

Gilliland flew from Anaheim to help McAnally with his car after he ran behind him in a previous race and saw how bad it handled as he ran behind it.

After they were done, Gilliland refused to let McAnally pay for his plane ticket.

“’I’m just glad you’ll be in a better car so I’m not in harm’s way,” Gilliland said.

Two decades later, at the same .333-mile track in Northern California, McAnally doused Butch Gilliland’s grandson, Todd, in a Gatorade bath, yelling “Congratulations, Champ!”

Todd Gilliland finished eighth last month in the Toyota / NAPA Auto Parts 150 to clinch the K&N Pro Series West title.

At 16 years and 5 months, the Riverside, California, native became the youngest NASCAR champion in history, topping the mark set a month earlier by Cayden Lapcevich (16 years, 10 months, 16 days) in NASCAR’s Pinty’s Series. Before that, Joey Logano held the distinction after winning the 2007 K&N Pro Series East title at 17 years, 3 months, 28 days.

“We had a lot of family there, that’s where almost everyone is from.” Todd Gilliland said a week after winning the title. “They all came out to the track to support us. It’s super cool to be able to take a picture with everyone I’ve grown up around.”

The path to those championship portraits started at Roseville in August of last year. McAnally held a two-day driver expo at his team’s shop and All-American Speedway.

Todd Gilliland, who won his first ARCA Racing Series start in May, was among the drivers invited, including Brandon McReynolds and Chris Eggleston.

Also present: former NASCAR crew chief Larry McReynolds, multiple NASCAR officials and representatives from NAPA Auto Parts, Toyota and the WIX Corporation.

Waiting for the drivers at the track were six K&N cars prepared by McAnally’s team. On the first day, each driver made three, 15-lap runs. After tune-ups based on driver feedback, they made  mock qualifying runs.

It was before the initial practice session that McAnally had his first lengthy talk with Todd Gilliland. McAnally said he thought the young racer seemed “really nervous.”

“His driving showed it,” McAnally said. “He wasn’t consistent, he wasn’t smooth. David (Gilliland) was on the radio leaning on him. The coach we had with him was calming him down, and by the second session he had calmed down and he went out there and ran some smooth, consistent laps. By the next day, he was the fastest, smoothest driver out there by far.”

Todd Gilliland also was impressed.

“We saw the A+ operation he had going on there, the people he had in place,” the driver said of McAnally in May. “We just felt it was the best fit for us this year.”

McAnally and his sponsors agreed.

Gilliland ran the No. 54 Toyota for McAnally at Phoenix at the end of the year. In his first K&N West start, he led six laps and won.

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 21: David Gilliland, driver of the #35 Dockside Logistics Ford, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Hellmann's 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 21, 2016 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
David Gilliland (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

FATHER-SON TIME

While David Gilliland had a hand in building his son’s cars, he didn’t get to see much of Todd’s career.

That’s what happens when your Sprint Cup Series career takes priority for 10 years.

But David was there when his son did donuts in a quarter-midget in a dirt lot across the street from the family’s Riverside home. He also saw Todd’s first quarter-midget race on his son’s fifth birthday, his ARCA win and the 2015 Phoenix race.

Without a Sprint Cup ride for the first time since 2006, David Gilliland finally experienced a full season of his son’s career.

And he did do so in his least favorite racing role – as a spotter.

“’I just didn’t want to be part of a problem or making a mistake or something like that,” David Gilliland said. “It was something (Todd) really wanted me to do.”

Instead of having a driver coach, spotter and crew chief taking to his son, David Gilliland would be the coach and spotter.

“I think that’s something that’s helped me a lot this year to have him tell me when I’m doing something wrong or right,” Todd Gilliland said. “He kind of makes myself better throughout the entire race. He also knows a lot about those cars and different situations that he’s been in before.”

The other voice talking to Todd Gilliland was Lawson, the crew chief who has worked with the Gillilands since 2014.

With that arrangement, Todd Gilliland won his first four K&N starts, tying the 60-year-old record set by Dan Gurney. His eight wins in 2016 surpassed the mark set Joey Logano (2007) and Dylan Kwasniewski (2014).

Source: Bill McAnally
Source: Bill McAnally

FILLING UP THE BOARD

McAnally was concerned.

Todd Gilliland hit his first real bump by finishing ninth in his second K&N East start at Bristol in April.

“All of sudden we’re off on our setup,” McAnally says. “We missed it. We had a top-10 car. So he finishes the race. I’m shaking my head, ‘How’s he going to be getting out of the car?’ All he’s ever done is win in a K&N car and now he’s fighting to be in the top 10.”

When he arrived at the No. 16 car, McAnally found his driver sitting on its door in good spirits.

“Lead a lap, top-10 finish,” Todd Gilliland announced. “I get two more splats on the board!”

On the wall of McAnally’s shop is a 10-by-20-foot board labelled “2016 Team Checklist.”

The board has 11 items that can be checked off by McNally’s four drivers for any given race. They include finish race lead lap, top-three finish, win race, and at the bottom, win championship.

Todd Gilliland was the only teammate to put a “splat” in every box.

While Todd Gilliland enjoyed a rookie season no one else has, including being named to the NASCAR Next class, he’s enthusiastic about learning what he hasn’t from his owner, father and crew chief.

Lawson saw that enthusiasm during the K&N East race in July at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Todd Gilliland was in second on a restart with two laps to go. Corey LaJoie, a veteran of 37 K&N races, led.

“(LaJoie) just smoked us on the restart,” Lawson said. “He just wore us out bad, and right after the restart was over, literally going down the backstretch, Todd is about four car lengths back off of him and goes ‘Man, that is awesome. I need to learn how to do that.’

“To me that’s cool, not only that he realizes it, he understood what happened, he wants to step his game up to be that good. He wasn’t mad, saying we got beat. He said ‘man, I want to do that. I want to be able to do that.’”

He’ll get that chance next year, whether it’s in the K&N Series, ARCA or venturing into the Camping World Truck Series.

Before that, Todd Gilliland will celebrate his title Dec. 11 at the NASCAR Touring Night of Champions Awards.

Then he can start preparing for next season and giving people reasons to consider what they were doing at 17.

Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier fastest in first of 2 Xfinity practices at Indianapolis

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Elliott Sadler (166.420 mph) and JR Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier (166.211 mph) were fastest in the first of two NASCAR Xfinity Series practices Friday afternoon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Kyle Busch, who has won the last two Xfinity races at IMS, was third fastest at 165.810 mph, followed by Erik Jones (165.508) and Paul Menard (165.466).

Teams are dealing with several changes for this weekend, including:

  • Taller rear spoiler and splitter package
  • Aero ducts on the lower front bumper area
  • 7/8-inch restrictor plate

There is one more Xfinity practice session scheduled for today from 3 to 3:55 p.m. on the NBC Sports app in preparation for Saturday’s Lilly Diabetes 250 race.

Click here for the full first practice session speed chart.

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NASCAR may further reduce how many Xfinity races Cup drivers can compete

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INDIANAPOLIS — NASCAR has talked with Xfinity teams about further limiting Cup drivers in Xfinity races, series managing director Wayne Auton said Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

One possibility would be for Cup drivers to be limited to five Xfinity races only regardless of their experience level, which could be a significant cut for some drivers.

Currently, drivers with more than five full-time seasons in Cup are limited to 10 Xfinity races. They also cannot compete in the four Dash 4 Cash races and the final eight races of the season.

Drivers with less than five full-time Cup seasons — Kyle Larson, Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon and Daniel Suarez for example — are allowed to compete in the Xfinity Dash 4 Cash races and all playoff events except the season finale in Miami.

The rule has had a limited impact with the results. Cup drivers have won 13 of 17 Xfinity races this season, heading into Saturday’s event at Indianapolis. Even with fewer Cup drivers in the Dash 4 Cash races, Cup competitors still won three of those four events.

“We have been in talks with teams about even limiting the number of races more or stay where we’re at,” Auton said. “Those conversations are ongoing. Stay tuned. I think some announcements will be coming out here pretty soon on what the garage area has asked us to look at.’’

With the current rules, 14 of the 17 Xfinity races have had at least three Cup drivers finish in the top five. The exceptions were Iowa (standalone race), Daytona (few Cup drivers competed) and Phoenix (a Dash 4 Cash race).

“We want to make sure that we have 40 cars on the racetrack every week and we have 40 competitive cars on the racetrack every week,’’ Auton said. “I’m very proud of the way our Xfinity drivers have held up this year. Have they won as many races as the other series drivers? No, they haven’t, but I’m going to tell you what, you can’t go from a lack of effort. They’re really driving their cars really hard this year to make sure they get that championship at Homestead.’’

Even so, Kevin Harvick has issues with further reducing the number of Xfinity races for Cup drivers. He notes such a change could impact teams financially. 

“I think that’s the one thing that a lot of people forget,’’ Harvick said on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show. “They want to take this Xfinity Series and they want to make it into Xfinity drivers only. Well, guess what? If you don’t race against the Cup guys and you don’t have that experience on a weekly basis of learning what those Cup guys are doing to run fast and how this sport works, all that is going to happen is you’re just going to struggle longer when you get to Cup. You’re not going to have all the tendencies of the things that you need just racing against Xfintiy drivers that don’t have all the experience that Cup guys get.

“And oh by the way. Those Xfinity sponsorships? Most of those sponsorships are tied to a Cup guy. If they dropped these races to five races like they’re talking to next year, we’ll have to cut two races. There’s probably a million dollars tied to those two races in sponsoring the race, associates on the Cup car, personal services contracts, so there is a lot of money on the line.

“So when you look at a Ryan Preece gets to run a Joe Gibbs car (as he did at New Hampshire last week, finishing second), he got that opportunity because they want to run that car full-time and obviously they’re getting enough money from the races that Denny Hamlin runs and Erik Jones runs and Kyle Busch runs to charge the top dollar.

“When you have a guy in it — and this is from a team owner standpoint when DeLana and I used to have the teams — when you have that top-dollar guy and you can charge $200,000 a race for sponsorship, you can take a chance on the non-companion races or the races you haven’t sold of selling a guy a race for $100,000 or $125,000. Those are where the opportunities come from.

“I just think we need to be very, very careful about cutting all the Cup ties to the series out of the (Xfinity) Series because there is a lot of sponsorship that really probably won’t show up until you get two, three or four years down the road, when these sponsors say, ‘Well, if I can’t have Kyle (Busch) in the car, I’ll put the money in the Cup car. We’ll just use the Cup car and that will be it because that is what will happen because the price point is becoming increasingly closer as we go through the years from one series to another.’’

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Ryan: A breakthrough or breaking rules? Kyle Larson’s star-making season is a NASCAR conundrum

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What happens when possibly the most talented driver in a racing series also is in danger of becoming viewed, however unfairly, as driving for the most tainted team?

This is the predicament currently facing Kyle Larson — and perhaps to an even larger degree, NASCAR and its most important narrative.

Alongside the breakaway playoff points push of Denver-based Furniture Row Racing and Martin Truex Jr. as championship favorites, Larson is among the best storylines the Cup Series has to offer this season.

He is delivering the circuit’s most thrilling drives, slicing through traffic with exquisite precision to finish second after starting from the rear of the past two races. He is laying claim to being the most versatile driver of his generation, equally excelling on asphalt and dirt across a broad spectrum of vehicles. He is finding his voice, calling peers to rebuild grass roots connections by running more short tracks, challenging the accepted norms of what makes stock-car racing great and shedding light on a merchandise business model that many say is broken.

But most importantly, he is validating the hype around being The Next Big Thing.

Desperate to hook a new breed of fans in the wake of a wave of retiring drivers (Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr.), NASCAR needs its 20somethings to corroborate its promotional pushes with results – and none has been better than Larson.

But there is a weird dichotomy here, too.

The reason he has made compelling charges from the rear of the field is the same as why some might question the legitimacy of his blinding speed – incessant inspection woes with NASCAR that left Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet unable to qualify for three races this season and disqualified from the pole position at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

It’s created the problematic optics of celebrating Larson’s emergence as a superstar doing superhuman things while simultaneously noting that his team has emerged as Public Enemy No. 1 in the eyes of NASCAR’s officials for building cars that skirt the bounds of legality.

That’s prompted conversations between the team and NASCAR about the risk of being competitive at the expense of credibility and possibly sullying the good names of Larson, team owner Chip Ganassi or sponsors such as Target (which is in a contract year and reportedly is mulling whether to stay).

To his credit, the low-key Larson has seemed typically nonplussed when reacting to the charge of being scofflaws.

“I think with how fast we’ve been running and all that, NASCAR has kept a closer eye on our team in particular,” Larson said after his runner-up finish at New Hampshire, explaining that the team’s infraction there “wasn’t anything different really than the other teams tinker with, just trying to maximize their aero performance in their cars. Just got to keep working hard on the areas of our race car that are legal and find some more speed that way.

“It seems like we have a target on our back. But that’s a good thing, too. It means everybody is paying attention to us. This is my fourth year, and I’ve never been in the position to where NASCAR and other teams are paying so much attention to our race car. That’s a compliment to everybody at our race shop.”

Within the NASCAR garage, the prevailing sentiment seems to be awe and respect (juxtaposed with a swath of fan negativity and outrage on social media). Outlaw culture always will be the backbone of an endeavor rooted in moonshiners outrunning the authorities with souped-up jalopies decades ago.

On his SiriusXM radio show this week, Kevin Harvick heaped effusive praise on Larson’s team for doing “what you’re supposed to do” and said he wanted to pat No. 42 crew chief Chad Johnston on the back for the success.

During a Tuesday interview at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Earnhardt also hailed Larson’s team (“you have to admire the ingenuity and engineering that goes into finding that speed”) while emphasizing with its driver by suggesting Larson probably feels “slighted” and “ticked off” by those who say there “must be something going on with the car. There’s no way somebody is that much better.

“It’s not a lot of fun,” Earnhardt said this week. “You want to get credit as a driver for being fast and good. I don’t think anyone can disagree that Kyle’s very talented, very fast. But any time you go out and do something really good and hear people questioning, ‘Is there shenanigans going on?’ As a driver, that really ticks you off. Not giving credit where it’s due. The team and driver, in your mind, are why the car’s fast. Not because the car is rigged in some way.”

But Larson’s car had the field covered by a few 10ths of a second at New Hampshire in practice and qualifying.

Is he really this sublimely gifted? Or is it because his equipment is, as some in the NASCAR hierarchy have implied, “unique”?

“I don’t think there’s a driver in the field that is three 10ths better than everybody else, but there will be years in his career he is considered the best driver on the track,” Earnhardt said. “He’s really, really good. Kyle (Busch) is going to lay claim to that argument to being best on track. Jimmie (Johnson) also. But Larson is right up in that conversation, and you also got to look at the team he’s with, that team’s been struggling a while and played second fiddle to Gibbs and to Hendrick at times. And now they’re not.

“He’s been a huge part of their success. He raised the bar for that company and that team, and that’s amazing when a driver can do that … get in cars and take the team to the next level. Usually the drivers are responsible for that. Kyle Larson is that kind of driver. That’s incredible.”

Unfortunately, that fact often is being obscured in the swirl of laser inspection, points penalties and crew chief suspensions (Johnston will miss his second of three consecutive races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway).

NASCAR can try to force Larson’s team to stay within the bounds of the rulebook, but it sometimes becomes counterproductive when those rules restrict the conversation around celebrating a singular talent.

It’s important to maintain the integrity of competition.

It also is more important than ever to keep the focus on the new faces who will carry the torch for big-league stock-car racing well into the 21st century.

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In the category of teams under the NASCAR microscope, Joey Logano’s No. 22 Ford ranks with Larson’s for scrutiny. Though a rear-end suspension piece was confiscated by officials at New Hampshire under the auspices of safety, it was an uncommon step magnified by the penalty that rendered Logano’s victory at Richmond International Raceway as useless for playoff eligibility.

Logano and his team have maintained since then that its recent slump of two top 10s in 10 races didn’t result from being stripped of a critical setup advantage. That might be true in a literal sense – NASCAR officials privately have said the rear-suspension violation at Richmond deemed wasn’t a game-changing element – but there still could be lingering effects from being the first team to have a win’s impact so diminished

The key to finding speed often is getting highly engineered enhancements approved within a very limited window of rule maneuverability, and that depends on NASCAR cooperation. The underlying takeaway from Logano’s post-Richmond skid might be less about NASCAR scolding a team for what it did than hamstringing a team from what it’s allowed to do in the future.

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Filling the No. 88 Chevrolet this week ostensibly seemed to close off any path for Matt Kenseth to Hendrick Motorsports, but many still will be watching the performance of Kasey Kahne for the rest of the season.

Kahne has another season left on his contract, but he also is in danger of missing the playoffs for the third consecutive season. If Hendrick elected to go in another direction for the No. 5 Chevrolet, it could promote phenom William Byron, who has been tearing up the Xfinity Series lately and appears to have sponsorship. Another option would be bringing in Kenseth for a bridge season, giving Byron another year of experience on the junior circuit while providing a championship-caliber veteran an opportunity to diagnose

If Kenseth does continue racing in Cup, it likely will require a massive pay cut as market forces driven by a dearth of corporate sponsorship will make it difficult to command big money for veterans who have impressive resumes but lack significant contract leverage.

By replacing Earnhardt with Alex Bowman, Hendrick Motorsports likely is reducing the driver salary line item in the No. 88 budget by at least 85 percent (if not more).

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The hiring by NASCAR this week of longtime Pocono Raceway president and CEO Brandon Igdalsky caught many off guard.

Igdalsky is well respected and liked, so it makes sense to put him as the sanctioning body’s track liaison as the managing director of event marketing and promotion.

But Igdalsky also hails from the family that has owned Pocono since its inception. Could his addition in Daytona Beach be a sign that NASCAR, which entered the track ownership business in 2013 with its purchase of Iowa Speedway, has plans in store for the 2.5-mile track?

NASCAR America: Parker Kligerman takes to simulator to show Xfinity changes at Indy (video)

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While Saturday will mark the sixth straight year the NASCAR Xfinity Series will race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there will be significant changes. 

Among the changes: the use of restrictor plates, as well as adding aero ducts to aid cars with the draft.

On Tbursday’s edition of NASCAR America, Parker Kligerman took a spin around the hallowed Indianapolis Motor Speedway — on the NBCSN iRacing Simulator, that is — to show how some of those changes will impact the cars and potentially the race.

Check it out in the video above.