Todd Gilliland captured the K&N Pro Series West championship in his first full season driving for Bill McAnally Racing, becoming NASCAR’s youngest champion in the process.
At 16 years, 5 months, Gilliland’s season wrapped up with six wins (as well as one win in the K&N East Series), six poles, 13 top-10 finishes, and led 564 laps.
Gilliland will officially be crowned Saturday night at the NASCAR Night of Champions Touring Awards. Before doing so, Gilliland spoke with NBC Sports Thursday at GoPro Motorplex during a champions outing.
NBC Sports: Let’s get business out of the way first, do you know what you’ll be doing in 2017?
Gilliland: Not really, we’re working on some stuff. But we’re working on running as many K&N races as we can.
NBC Sports: Dad (David Gilliland) was able to spend a lot of time with you this year, how has he helped your progression?
Gilliland: I feel like he’s definitely helped my progression. If the learning curve is supposed to take five races he made it take two. So I feel like just that and on the radio just different situations that I’ve never been in that he can really help out; different adjustments you can make inside the car.
NBC Sports: Coming into the year when you sat down and gave yourself realistic expectations what were they?
Gilliland: We wanted to win two K&N West races and one East race, and we won seven (races) this year (between the two series). It’s crazy, but everyone at Bill McAnally Racing definitely gave me the cars to do it every week.
NBC Sports: How did the checklist on the shop wall come about?
Gilliland: I’m not sure. We went over to the open house at Bill McAnally Racing, and Bill had it up on the wall, and I’d say that was one of my favorite things in the whole shop, just being able to go in there and check the boxes off every week and thinking about it at the racetrack, that just one more spot and we can check another box.
NBC Sports: So you were constantly aware of the list?
Gilliland: Very aware. Even at Bristol, it was our fourth race, and we’d won the first three and then all I wanted to do was finish top 10. I knew we did have a car to win, but to just finish top 10 so I could check another box. Definitely kept us all moving forward.
NBC Sports: What has been the coolest thing that has happened since winning the championship?
Gilliland: It’s been a whirlwind. I feel like the coolest part was (Wednesday) night at the Whelen Hall of Champions when I got to take the paper off my name and my name was just a couple above my grandpa’s, one row over. It’s cool that we’re both champions on the West.”
NBC Sports: Some of your peers are nervous about the banquet, are you looking forward to it?
Gilliland: I’m looking forward to the whole night. We actually came last year just to check it out, I didn’t run any K&N races but … I am very nervous about the speech. But we’ll get it done and be fine I guess. It’s already written, and I’ve read through it a couple times, and luckily we have a couple of rehearsal nights.
The second half of a two-race gamble on himself that Ryan Preece has spent 20 years investing in since his days at a quarter-midget track in Meriden, Connecticut.
The 26-year-old driver is three days away from a race that could determine if he has any future at NASCAR’s highest levels.
The biggest race of Preece’s career comes in Saturday night’s Xfinity Series event at Iowa Speedway (3:30 p.m., NBC), a race where there will be no Cup drivers to keep him out of the spotlight.
He’s been on this stage before, though. He competed in this race against many of the same drivers last year, but in nowhere near the equipment provided by Joe Gibbs Racing’s No 20 Toyota. That’s why his presence in the Xfinity race two weeks ago at New Hampshire and his second-place finish may have taken some off guard.
“At a national level with Xfinity, there’s still probably some people who still don’t know I ran last year,” says Preece, who ran in all 33 Xfinity races in 2016 with JD Motorsports.
A second-generation driver, Preece rose through the ranks of modifieds and late models in the Northeast, winning numerous series and track championships and becoming the youngest champion of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour in 2013. He has 17 wins in the series since 2007.
He eventually got a taste of the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series with underfunded teams the last three years.
But after his year with JD Motorsports, mostly spent in the back half of the field, Preece didn’t want another stagnant season. He didn’t want a 10th-place finish at Darlington to be his ceiling.
“(Newman) said ‘If you’re not having fun, why do it?’” Preece recalls. “ ‘If you’re not doing what you want to be doing, why do that?’ I said ‘You’re right.’ I want to win, and I feel I wasn’t going to be able to at that point in time.”
Preece chose to return to his home in modified racing.
There, he knew he was good. There, he knew he could be at peace and win at the same time.
“I learned that I’m just not somebody who is just going to settle, to just be there” Preece says. “I’m not about being just part of the show. I want to show everybody, more prove to myself that I can do this. Not that I don’t think I can, but I want to show everybody else too. I feel like I need that opportunity and I finally got it (with Joe Gibbs Racing).”
While Newman’s words helped him come to a conclusion, Earnhardt encouraged him along a specific path.
“I said, ‘If you can get into a Gibbs car, get in a Gibbs car,” Earnhardt said. ” ‘That would be your best opportunity to win a race. That’s really the only way you’re going to be able to get people to take notice. I’m not saying it was my idea, but I think he made a great decision with what little money he had.”
“When opportunity doesn’t knock, you’ve got to knock the door down,” Preece says.
If Preece didn’t heed the words of Earnhardt, he listened to Kevin Manion.
During his one season with JD Motorsports, Preece lived in the race shop of the Kyle Busch Motorsports crew chief.
It was Manion who gave Preece the phone number of Steve deSouza, the executive vice president of Xfinity and development at Joe Gibbs Racing.
“Kevin Manion gave me his number and said, ‘Hey, at least you can call. If he doesn’t call back, it’s no big deal, at least you can say you called’,” Preece says. “That’s really, to be honest with you, what got everything going because (deSouza) called me back that night. Obviously, it took sponsors to get me into the car and finish off the deal. Those phone calls are what really got me to this point.”
Preece said this three days removed from the best finish of his Xfinity career in 37 starts.
It was a race that saw Preece lead two laps and finish runner-up to Kyle Busch.
But neither of those were the most fun part of the experience for Preece. That came with 10 laps left in Stage 1 as the race resumed after a caution and Preece restarting 16th on fresh tires.
Ten laps later, Preece finished the stage in second behind Kyle Larson.
“That’s what I like to do,” Preece said. “I’m used to on Friday and Saturday nights where we have what they call a handicap. You win your heat race and then you start 15th or whatever. I’m used to starting mid-pack and driving through the field and navigating through holes and keeping the car safe doing it. That was the most fun to me.”
Preece will get one more chance to show off his kind of fun in the Xfinity Series to anyone that’s paying attention.
With the backing of five sponsors who have supported his modified and late-model careers, Preece secured the race at New Hampshire. Three of those sponsors will be on his car this weekend in Iowa.
Preece says he hasn’t felt any more pressure to perform in these two races than he would in any at the modified level. Even if they could be his last real shot at NASCAR success.
“I knew what the value of those races could be, the risk that was being taken,” Preece says. “It’s funny, some people have even said after this point they thought what I was doing was pretty risky. They wouldn’t do it, it’s not the conventional way. I believe in myself, and I knew that if could get the right opportunity and be a part of something like that it could go exactly the way I felt it could go. I could have gone and blown up on Lap 5 and you still wouldn’t know who Ryan Preece is.”
But for at least one more race, Preece can force the spotlight on himself.
He seeks to make his name when it seems any noteworthy driver rising through NASCAR’s top three series hovers around the legal drinking age. But the 26-year-old believes his age is a benefit.
“One thing I know from personal experience is that I’ve gotten better and wiser with age and that’s something about our sport,” Preece says. “As long as you’re willing to put in the effort, you can keep going to the next level. You’re only going to get better as you get older.”
Even as the days tick down to his second start, Preece’s mind last week was focused on his full-time job. He drives a modified owned by Eddie and Connie Partridge that he takes care of himself.
Last Tuesday, he was in the middle of attaching panels to the car he drove to an eighth-place finish Friday night at Stafford Motor Speedway, located roughly 40 miles northeast of his hometown of Berlin, Connecticut.
Preece has taken it upon himself to prepare his modifieds since 2011 when he parted ways with a team after only three races.
It’s a work ethic Preece aspired to after witnessing one of his heroes, the late sprint car driver Dave Steele, from a distance. As a kid still driving in midgets, Preece watched Steele work on his car following a race at the Speedrome in Indianapolis.
“He won that night of course,” Preece recalls. “He had his lap top plugged into the whole system and from that day on he made me want to be like him. … I watched him work on his race car and really, he didn’t have many guys with him. From what I remember it was only two or three of them. It was a memory for me and kind of what set the tone for who I want to be and how I want to be.”
Now Preece is waiting to see if the combination of his work ethic and a gamble on himself will pay off following his Iowa venture.
But Preece is leaving his NASCAR fortunes “up to fate.”
“That will tell us if I was meant to do this or not at a bigger level,” Preece says. “My goal is to go out there and show the world what I feel I can do and that’s hopefully winning races at this level.”
Menards has adorned the No. 27 Chevrolet for RCR for seven consecutive Cup seasons and is among the last full-season sponsors in NASCAR’s premier series. It assuredly is the most lucrative of RCR’s sponsorships.
Though the team is committed to fielding Chevys for Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon next season, the impending departure of Menard leaves questions about whether RCR will remain a three-car team in 2018.
In a statement Wednesday morning, team chairman and CEO Richard Childress said the team “will be announcing our plans for a third Cup team and our overall 2018 team lineup at a later date.”
Here’s the full statement from Childress:
Paul Menard and Menards, Inc. have had a partnership with RCR for seven years. Together, we have enjoyed a tremendous amount of success, including Paul’s emotional win at Indianapolis in 2011. He is a very talented driver and a good friend. Everyone at RCR wishes both Paul and Menards nothing but the best in the future.
Our entire RCR organization is 100 percent focused on getting all three of our Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series programs in the playoffs this year, and bringing another Cup championship to RCR in 2017.
We will be announcing our plans for a third Cup team and our overall 2018 team lineup at a later date.
Paul Menard will move to the Wood Brothers for 2018 season
Menards will sponsor the car in 22 races. Additional sponsorship, including plans for longtime partner Motorcraft/Quick Lane, will be announced later. The technical alliance between Team Penske and the Wood Brothers will continue. Greg Erwin will serve as Menard’s crew chief, car owner Eddie Wood confirmed Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s fantastic to have the ability to continue to race in the highest level of motorsports full time and something we look forward to doing with Paul for years to come,” Wood said in a statement. “I know this will allow us to continue to perform as an organization and will give Paul a great opportunity to go out there and compete for wins. Paul is not only a great driver with a lot of experience in the Cup Series, but he’s great with partners, which is a big part of what we do these days. We are looking forward to finishing out this season with Ryan (Blaney), going for more wins and maybe even a championship, and continuing that with Paul in 2018.”
Said Menard: “I’ve really enjoyed my time in NASCAR and as a Cup Series driver, but to get the chance to drive the iconic No. 21 for the Wood Brothers is the coolest thing I’ve ever got a chance to do. I’m looking forward to working with the team, working with Roush Yates, Ford Performance and Team Penske to see what we can do. Ryan (Blaney) has done a fantastic job and is a constant threat to run up front. Hopefully, we can do the same thing and keep the momentum going into 2018 and beyond.”
Also, Menard will run a handful of Xfinity races for Team Penske next year.
Menard had been with Richard Childress Racing since 2011, scoring his lone Cup victory — the 2011 Brickyard 400 — with the organization.
Menard’s best finish in the points with the organization was 14th in 2015. He is 23rd in the points with no wins, two top fives and three top-10 finishes this season.
The move marks the fourth organization the 36-year-old Menard has raced full-time for in his Cup career. He drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc. from 2007-08, Yates Racing from 2009-10 and Childress since.
Car owner Richard Childress issued a statement:
“Paul Menard and Menards, Inc. have had a partnership with RCR for seven years. Together, we have enjoyed a tremendous amount of success, including Paul’s emotional win at Indianapolis in 2011. He is a very talented driver and a good friend. Everyone at RCR wishes both Paul and Menards nothing but the best in the future.
“Our entire RCR organization is 100 percent focused on getting all three of our Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series programs in the playoffs this year, and bringing another Cup championship to RCR in 2017.
“We will be announcing our plans for a third Cup team and our overall 2018 team lineup at a later date.”