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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: Tony Stewart on Stewart-Haas Racing, Danica Patrick’s future, Cole Custer (video)

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Tony Stewart was our special in-studio guest during Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America.

The former three-time NASCAR Cup champ spent the entire hour with Carolyn Manno, Kyle Petty and Jeff Burton, giving his unique take on all things NASCAR.

Among the things Stewart talked about were:

The future of Stewart-Haas Racing: “We don’t know exactly who’s going to be in the 10 car, but we’re working on it. We’re excited about the partnership with Smithfield. The 41 car is still up in the air. We fully intend on having (Kurt Busch) there next year, but it’s dictated on sponsorship. We need to make sponsorship for that car before we commit to him next year.”

What will Danica Patrick do after she leaves SHR: “I see a lot of options, really. Danica is one of the few people that has the ability to stay in NASCAR if she wants, go back to IndyCar, or go road racing. There’s not a lot of drivers that have been released this year that have the option to go do so many things. It shows how versatile and talented she is, to have that many options. It’s a matter of  what does she want to do, where her heart and mind is and what does she want to do for the next five, 10, 15 years.”

The potential of SHR Xfinity Series driver Cole Custer: “I’m really proud of Cole. For the first two years I knew Cole, he never spoke to me. For about 75 percent of the time he was in front of me, he couldn’t look me in the eyes, that’s how shy of a kid he is. When he puts that helmet on, it’s amazing the transformation. This kid is a talented race car driver.”

Check out the full video above to get more of Stewart’s observations.

 

 

 

NASCAR America: Josef Newgarden celebrates IndyCar championship (video)

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On Tuesday’s NASCAR America, we checked in with the new king of IndyCar racing, 2017 season Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden.

Among the things the Knoxville, Tennessee native spoke about was the help he got in his amazing first season with Team Penske from all his teammates.

“My teammates were great, letting me just being part of that group right from the beginning and trying to contribute and help me learn so I could contribute and help us be stronger overall,” Newgarden said.

He also talked about the surge in U.S. drivers in the series, much like NASCAR is enjoying with several young drivers including another teammate, Ryan Blaney, who texted Newgarden at length to offer him congratulations and compared the youth movement in both racing series.

“We’ve got a lot of young talent that’s trying to show the way and prove themselves against the already proven people in the sport,” Newgarden said. “It’s a fascinating thing to watch.”

NASCAR America: Tony Stewart on state of NASCAR, stage racing and more (video)

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It was Tony Stewart Day at the NBC Sports Group headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut on Tuesday.

The former three-time NASCAR Cup champ made the rounds of the complex, starting in the morning with an appearance on the Dan Patrick Show, and wrapping up things with an hour-long visit on NASCAR America.

One of the first things Stewart talked about with Carolyn Manno, Kyle Petty and Jeff Burton was how busy he is in “retirement.” He may not be racing in the Cup series anymore, but he’s still plenty busy, including racing sprint cars, taking a bigger managerial role over the four Cup teams and one Xfinity team at Stewart-Haas Racing and even how he’s breeding white tail deer at his farm in Indiana.

“To be honest, I have more fun doing that (things like signing autographs and making appearances) now than when I was a driver,” Stewart said. “Now, walking through the garage, you’re still busy because you’ve got to get to where you go. The best part is you can kind of enjoy walking around more and have time to visit with people you don’t get a chance to see all the time.”

Stewart also sat down with the “Mayor” of NASCAR, NBC analyst Jeff Burton, to talk about the state of the sport. One thing that some may find surprising is that the old school Stewart likes some of the new things the sport has, including stage racing.

“I like the stage racing,” Stewart said. “It’s added something that’s unique, especially a third of the way through the race. Before, in the first half of the race, we didn’t worry so much about racing each other. … I like it, I think we’ve seen some unique strategies. … It’s been pretty exciting. I’m a big fan of the stage part.”

Stewart also talked with Burton about keeping up with technology, aerodynamics, track position, rules and more.

Check out the following video to hear Stewart out:

Brendan Gaughan among Xfinity playoff drivers unsure of 2018 plans

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — There’s seven races left in the NASCAR Xfinity season and Brendan Gaughan hasn’t “started thinking about it too much yet” if he’ll continue competing full-time next year.

That’s OK with Gaughan, who went on to say “I hope I’m still racing full-time.”

The 42-year-old driver for Richard Childress Racing is one of the 12 in the Xfinity playoffs, which begin at 8 p.m. ET Saturday at Kentucky Speedway on NBCSN.

“Normally we know what we’re doing by now,” Gaughan said Tuesday. “This year we probably don’t, which is a little odd for us. I told you last year, if I don’t come back, I’m happy. If I do come back, it’ll because I’m happy. It’s more just are we still having fun, are we still competitive? We’re in the playoffs, so we’re still competitive.”

Gaughan is in his fourth year with RCR since returning to the Xfinity Series full-time in 2014. He said he’s once again committed to competing in the four Cup Series restrictor-plate races next year for Beard Motorsports.

“When someone uses the word ‘retirement,’ people love to throw that out with me,” Gaughan said. “You can say that all you want. I will never be done racing. My father still races one race a year. We race because we love to race. If I don’t race full-time, I promise you’ll still find me behind the wheel.”

Gaughan’s No. 62 Chevrolet is one of five cars RCR has fielded this year, including the No. 21 driven by fellow playoff driver Daniel Hemric and the No. 33 of Brandon Jones.

“I have a feeling (Richard Childress) is not going to do five Xfinity cars probably ever again,” Gaughan said.

That possibility was further backed by Hemric, who said he’s not sure where he’ll be racing in 2018 following his rookie season.

“I don’t know how exactly it’s all going to shake out,” Hemric said. “Everybody’s constantly trying to evolve and make sure you’re making progress day-to-day and I can say that we’ve done that. It looks like I will be racing, I’m just not sure in what yet and where along those lines.”

Brennan Poole, who is nearing the end of his second full-time season with Chip Ganassi Racing, said he has some sort of indication of where he’ll be come February.

“So I don’t know what I’m going to do yet next year,” Poole said. “I have an idea of what I’m going to do. Really excited about my future and where I’m at. I’m in good spirits, I’m not worried about anything. Definitely just want to get through these playoffs and do a good job and prove that I’m capable of being a Sunday (Cup) guy.

Matt Tifft, Joe Gibbs Racing’s only full-time driver in the Xfinity Series and a rookie, also addressed his situation for 2018.

“You’re always trying to work on things for the future,” Tifft said. “We’re trying to figure those things out now. But at the same time, I’m absolutely trying to prove that I belong here. That first win is still looming. Everybody knows this sport is performance driven and I understand that. I know what we need to do. It’s just figuring out the ways of how to do that and how to get myself better. ”

When would the 21-year-old driver like to know what’s in store for him?

“I would have liked to yesterday,” Tifft said. “We’re working on that. It’ll all fall into place when it needs to. That’s not my main concern right now. My main concern is what’s coming up this weekend.”

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