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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.

NASCAR America: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. talks Phoenix finish, racing roots

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. joins NASCAR America to go over his fourth-place finish at Phoenix Raceway.

The Roush Fenway Racing driver also shares his racing origins in Mississippi and the hobbies he and girlfriend Danica Patrick share with each other.

Stenhouse is in his fifth full-time year competing in the NASCAR Cup Series with Roush Fenway Racing.

NASCAR America: 50 States in 50 Shows: Alaska

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NASCAR America continues its journey through the United States with the second chapter in “50 States in 50 Shows.”

Following South Alabama Speedway, the show features Capitol Speedway and Alaska Raceway Park in Alaska.

Owned by Nancy and Wes Wallace, Capitol Speedway is a 3/8th-mile oval and features sprint car racing and demolition derbies.

 

Kevin Harvick crew chief fined, suspended one race for encumbered finish

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Kevin Harvick‘s crew chief, Rodney Childers, has been suspended for one NASCAR Cup Series race and fined $25,000 for an unapproved track bar slider assembly last weekend at Phoenix Raceway.

The penalty, a L1 infraction, results in an encumbered finish. Harvick placed sixth in the Camping World 500.

The No. 4 team has also been docked 10 driver and owner points. Harvick was seventh in the standings after four races. He trailed leader Kyle Larson by 61 points. The loss of points drops Harvick one spot to eighth behind Jamie McMurray.

Harvick has not won a race yet, which would qualify him for the playoffs.

MORE: Brad Keselowski closes crew chief for three races, team docked 35 driver points

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NASCAR docks Brad Keselowski, Team Penske 35 points; suspends crew chief Paul Wolfe

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NASCAR docked Brad Keselowski 35 points, suspended crew chief Paul Wolfe three races and fined Wolfe $65,000 because Keselowski’s car failed inspection after finishing fifth in last weekend’s race at Phoenix Raceway.

NASCAR also docked the team 35 owner points for the L1 infraction. NASCAR stated that Keselowski’s result is an encumbered finish.

NASCAR cited Keselowski’s car for failing weights and measurements on the laser platform. NASCAR stated in Wednesday’s penalty report that the team failed the rear wheel steer on the Laser Inspection Station. 

MORE: NASCAR suspends crew chief Rodney Childers one race

Team Penske issued a statement Wednesday:

“We have acknowledged the penalties levied against the No. 2 team following last weekend’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway.  The race cars returned to the race shop today and we are in the process of evaluating the area in question. In the meantime, we have decided Brian Wilson will serve as Brad Keselowski’s crew chief at Auto Club Speedway while we evaluate our approach relative to today’s penalties.”

The penalty drops Keselowski from second in the standings to fourth heading into this weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway.

The more significant issue is how this could impact Keselowski, who already has a win, in the playoffs.

The top 10 in points before the playoffs begin earn additional points. The points leader earns 15 playoff points. The driver second in the standings earns 10 playoff points, the driver third in the standings earns eight playoff points, the driver fourth in the standings earns seven playoff points. It goes down to the driver 10th in the standings earning one playoff point.

Those playoff points carry through the first three rounds, which is different from last year. Falling behind in the regular season – or losing points because of a penalty – could have ramifications in the playoffs. 

“I think it’s real important to explain why points matter this year,” Keselowski said on Fox Sports 1’s “Race Hub” on Wednesday night. “Last year, you got a win and you locked in and you got to the next round. This year with points, you still lock in with wins. The difference is there’s a huge points bonus for having the most points at the end of the season that carries all the way through the playoffs, and you only get that bonus if you’re one of the best cars and leading up front at the end of the regular season, which requires having a lot of points. Thirty-five points is a pretty big deal, and so is 10 points for Kevin (Harvick) and his team.”

 

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