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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.

Brad Keselowski puts on driving clinic with convincing win at Martinsville

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Brad Keselowski put on a driving clinic Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, leading 446 of 500 laps to win the STP 500. It was Keselowski’s second win of the season (also won at Atlanta), and his fourth top-3 finish in the last five races.

It was also Keselowski’s 29th career Cup win and his second Cup Series triumph in 19 career starts at Martinsville. Starting with his first win there in April 2017 and including Sunday’s win, Keselowski has now led 712 total laps over the last five races at the southern Virginia short track. 

“The car was really good,” Keselowski told Fox Sports 1. “Just a great day for our team. Awesome execution on pit road. … Just one of those days you dream of as a race car driver, where you have a great car.

“(Runner-up) Chase Elliott was real strong. He passed me with about 200 laps to go. I watched him and studied and knew what I had to do to hold him off and really pulled it off.”

Elliott tried to mount a last lap surge — two of the previous three races at Martinsville have been won on last lap passes — but ran out of time and fell short.

“Our Camaro was good and felt we were about as even with him as we could be,” Elliott said. “I tried to move up there at the end, but I don’t know if I could have got to him, maybe if I had moved up a little sooner. Maybe next time.”

Kyle Busch, making the 1,000th overall start of his NASCAR career, finished third, snapping a two-race winning streak (Phoenix and Fontana). Busch and Keselowski are now the only two drivers to win more than one race thus far this season.

Ryan Blaney finished fourth, followed by Denny Hamlin. Sixth through 10th were Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez.

There were only three leaders in the race: Keselowski, Chase Elliott (49 laps) and Keselowski’s Team Penske teammate and pole sitter Joey Logano (6 laps).

STAGE 1 WINNER: Brad Keselowski (first stage win of season)

STAGE 2 WINNER: Brad Keselowski

WHAT’S NEXT: O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday, March 31 (Fox); green flag shortly after 3 p.m. ET.

We’ll be back with more information, including quotes, full results and updated standings. Please check back soon.

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Kyle Busch has idea for NASCAR’s Xfinity, Truck limits

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Kyle Busch would entertain the opportunity to pursue the one NASCAR championship that has eluded him – in the Gander Outdoor Truck Series – when his Cup career is over.

But he’s got an idea that would allow him to run both series concurrently and address the limits on Cup drivers running in lower series.

“Why don’t you let us run as many races as we want to run and then once we miss one, we’re done?” Busch pondered after his victory Saturday in the TruNorth Global 250 truck race at Martinsville Speedway. “So if I go all the way to (the June 15 race at Iowa Speedway) in the trucks and run 10 races and can’t go to Iowa, I’m done.

“You can race for points or whatever and so if that ever came down to that, then maybe there’d be an opportunity years down the road that then you can run multiple series and try to go after a championship that way.”

What was NASCAR’s reaction to the plan?

“That’s probably the first time I’ve said that or thought about it,” Busch said with a laugh. “Now that it’s out there … there’s not a damn fan that’s ever going to let it happen.”

Indeed, Busch’s 201st career victory in a NASCAR national series drew the usual outrage on social media Saturday, both from his Rowdy Nation legion of fans and those who vehemently believe he should be limited beyond the NASCAR cap of five truck races and seven Xfinity races allowed for full-time Cup drivers.

Busch has won in seven of 11 starts in trucks, Xfinity and Cup this season.

“Could have been nine or 10 (victories) probably, that’s what the scary part is if it wasn’t for simple mistakes,” Busch said. “Overall, it’s been fun. It’s a damn shame I’m only allowed five and seven.”

Busch has two 2019 starts left in trucks: at Texas Motor Speedway next week and Charlotte Motor Speedway in May.

He said the chances are solid for going 5 for 5.

“I’d like to think Texas is a good place,” he said. “I think our guys have a good baseline. Charlotte is always one of my best tracks, favorite tracks and enjoy running there with the trucks, especially. There’s a good opportunity.

“It’s kind of an expectation (to win every race). We just go out, work hard and smart, and today we let the race play itself out and come to us.”

Busch won the 2009 Xfinity championship in the last season in which he ran full time in NASCAR’s top two series. He has focused solely on Cup full time since then, and NASCAR has changed rules over the past eight years limiting the ability to run for more than one title.

Despite 148 starts (and 54 victories), he is yet to run a full truck season, but the 2015 Cup champion has said he’d like to become the first driver to win a championship in each of NASCAR’s top three series.

Three Cup cars fail prerace inspection at Martinsville Speedway

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. — The cars of William Byron, DJ Kennington and Jeb Burton failed inspection Sunday morning at Martinsville Speedway.

Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet failed mechanical measurements. His sixth-place qualifying time will be disallowed, and he will have to start from the rear.

Kennington failed the OSS. He qualified 34th.

Burton had qualified 33rd.

The three cars will officially start behind those that passed inspection. Cars that qualified behind them will move up one spot.

The No. 24 suffered a right-front tire problem in the opening minutes of first practice Saturday morning, and the team made repairs to put the car back on track.

Today’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway: Start time, lineup, more

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MARTINSVILLE — High downforce could bring hot tempers to Martinsville Speedway, where today’s STP 500 will mark the first short track of the 2019 Cup schedule.

In the last visit to the 0.526-mile oval, Joey Logano bumped Martin Truex Jr. aside entering the last two corners in one of the most thrilling finishes of the 2018 season.

Here’s the pertinent information for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Robert DeRidder, the senior vice president and general manager of Energizer Holdings Inc. (owners of STP), will give the command to start engines at 2:01 p.m. The green flag is scheduled for 2:07 p.m.

PRERACE: The crew chief and drivers meeting is at noon. Driver introductions will begin at 1:20 p.m. The invocation will be given by track chaplain Mike Hatfield at 1:54 p.m. The 380th Army Band will perform the national anthem at 1:55 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 500 laps (263 miles) around the 0.526-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 130. Stage 2 ends on Lap 260.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race with coverage beginning at 12:30 p.m. Motor Racing Network will broadcast the race. MRN’s coverage begins at 1 p.m. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast, which is also available at MRN.com.

FORECAST: wunderground.com calls for partly cloudy skies with a high of 63 degrees and a zero percent chance of rain for the start of the race.

LAST TIME: In a race delayed to Monday by a snowstorm, Clint Bowyer scored his first victory for Stewart-Haas Racing. Kyle Busch finished second. Ryan Blaney placed third. Joey Logano won at Martinsville last fall. Denny Hamlin placed second. Martin Truex Jr. was third. 

TO THE REAR: William Byron (mechanical measurements), DJ Kennington (OSS) and Jeb Burton will start from the rear after failing inspection Sunday morning.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup.